The Papillion Fire Department hired 12 new firefighters with the help of a $2 million federal grant.
The new hires were made in preparation for the department's expansion into La Vista next week.
Four of the new hires have experience with the La Vista Volunteer Fire Department, said Papillion Community Relations Coordinator Darren Carlson. All 12 started working on Monday. Nine out of the 12 have previous firefighting experience and five members have military experience.
Members of the Papillion department have spent the last few months preparing for the expansion by becoming familiar with La Vista.
“We're getting very, very close to being ready,” said Papillion Fire Chief Bill Bowes. “Things are really getting hectic now. All the advance work we've been planning — everything is falling together pretty well.”
Bowes said expanding the department to La Vista was something that was always talked about, but people said the politics and economics of it wouldn't line up.
“I really do view it as a once in a career opportunity. Especially the people who've been with the Papillion Fire Department since the early '90s when it was all volunteer,” Bowes said.
Last fall, officials from both cities and the Papillion Rural Fire Protection District board approved the change.
“We still have one department, one operational budget and three payers,” said Papillion Mayor David Black. “The big picture is when we added La Vista, the operation grew but brought a third person in to pay the bill.”
Black's two requirements for expanding the department to La Vista were that it could not reduce public safety in Papillion — it had to be just as safe or safer — and it could not increase cost to Papillion.
“All the way along, we used those as a guide to test it,” Black said.
Working on the expansion has been a unique opportunity, Bowes said.
“It's been great work, a lot of work, but great work trying to put it together,” he said. “We're very excited for April 1 to come and find out if all that planning is going to pay off.”
In addition to learning La Vista's streets and neighborhoods, Papillion firefighters have also been familiarizing themselves with La Vista's hotels, businesses and apartment complexes.
La Vista's fire station at 8110 Park View Blvd. underwent renovations to make it a 24-hour station. The La Vista station at 108th Street and Chandler Road will become the expanded department's new headquarters. Administrative offices will relocate there on or after April 1, Bowes said.
Department members have also been deciding what equipment to keep in the expansion. Bowes said they are getting rid of one ladder truck, three engines, two ambulances and a couple of older utility vehicles.
The old equipment will likely be sold to smaller communities with volunteer departments after April 1, Bowes said.
“After April 1, when we condense things down and start using the better equipment, the older will be ready for sale,” he said.
Money from the sale of older equipment goes into a specific account that the department can use to purchase other equipment. It's set aside for larger purchases. In order to access funds in that account, Bowes said he must get permission from both cities and the rural fire district.
“It can't be spent here and there,” he said. “There has to be a plan associated with it.”
Papillion residents won't see major changes in regard to average calls, Bowes said. But for more complex calls, like apartment fires or house fires, more resources will be available.
“For more significant calls ... that involve more resources, the fire department is going to have more resources more readily available to respond,” he said. “There's an increased level of service.”
With a volunteer department, there is a built-in time loss with members needing to first leave home or work, then go to the station before responding.
“We really expect response times in La Vista to drastically improve because we have staff ready to go 24/7,” Bowes said. “In all calls, we would expect the response times in La Vista to be better than they were. In significant calls that require more resources, just like in a Papillion resident's case, there will be more resources readily available.”
Bowes said he and other department members are looking forward to working with La Vista schools.
“We have a great relationship with Papillion-La Vista schools but we've never done anything with the La Vista side of the schools,” he said.
Firefighters visit schools and read to students. Every fall, they complete fire safety education with first through third grades.
Bowes said they also plan to have a presence at La Vista community events, such as La Vista Daze and neighborhood watch parties.
The change is historic, Black said. But it's not necessarily new for the City of Papillion. The city has been cooperating with the rural fire district for a decade, he said.
“It's worked really well and we're adding a third trusted partner. We've already cooperated with La Vista. In one sense, it's just, let's keep doing what we've been doing,” Black said. “It is historic, especially for La Vista.”
Bowes agreed with Black that the expansion is historic.
“On the sad side of things, the La Vista Volunteer Fire Department will no longer exist,” Bowes said. “They're losing that tradition. On the positive side of things, La Vista is gaining a fully paid fire department that will meet needs now and in the future. We're starting that tradition. It's a big step for La Vista.”