The City of La Vista is weighing whether to disband the La Vista Volunteer Fire Department because of a chronic shortage of volunteers.
City officials publicly announced Friday they were studying the possibility of the Papillion Fire Department being brought in to provide fire protection services to La Vista residents.
The proposal would see the City of La Vista pay the cost of Papillion hiring professional firefighters to man La Vista’s two fire stations and respond to fire and rescue calls in La Vista’s jurisdiction.
La Vista Mayor Doug Kindig said the joint arraignment is the “logical solution” to a shortfall in volunteers as the city continues to grow.
In the past decade, he said La Vista’s population has grown 45 percent and fire and rescue calls are up 153 percent, but the number of volunteers has not grown proportionally.
Currently, La Vista needs about 75 volunteers, available for shifts both during the day and overnight, to respond to calls. However, the department has only 61 volunteers as of Friday, Fire Chief Rich Uhl said.
“We just don’t have enough of them to continue as we look at our future growth,” Kindig said. “While nobody is happy about losing the great tradition of volunteerism that La Vista has enjoyed, we have to do what is in the best interest of the residents of La Vista.”
The City of Papillion has contracted for the past decade with the Papillion Rural Fire Protection District to provide service outside its territorial limits. In addition, the Papillion Fire Department also responds to mutual aid calls in La Vista and Bellevue.
Papillion Mayor David Black said the city already has a long, healthy history of cooperation with La Vista and the rural fire district. He said the focus of the discussion is finding the best way to deliver municipal services regardless of which side of the boundary line residents live.
“It comes down to cooperation and efficiency,” Black said. “These locally initiated cooperative efforts are things that local government does all the time. There’s quiet examples of it happening all over the place. Local government tends to be the leader in these cooperative efforts.”
The study should be completed in the coming weeks. Action would be needed by both the Papillion and La Vista city councils, as well as the rural fire board, to enter into a partnership. Kindig said any contract would likely start Oct. 1, with volunteers continuing to serve until that time.
Current volunteers would be provided an opportunity to apply to join the Papillion Fire Department, Black said. Civil service rules prohibit them from being given hiring preference, so the La Vista department could not simply be folded into the existing Papillion department.
“It must be an open, competitive and impartial process,” Black said. “We are already at the beginning of a testing process. We’re going to slow that down, open that process up, so that all volunteers that choose to become part of that process will have that opportunity.”
The proposal has been hard for many members of the La Vista Volunteer Fire Department. While none of the members contacted by the Papillion Times responded to requests for interviews, Kindig said feelings were hurt after the city informed them of their intentions Thursday evening.
“Anytime that you put your heart, your soul, into something and there’s going to be a change, there’s going to be emotion with that,” Kindig said. “There was some anger, I think there was some surprise.”
Once the volunteers process the reasons for the change, Kindig said he hopes they will stay with the department through the proposed transition. He said it’s difficult proposing the elimination of something so treasured, but he said the city must do what’s right for its residents.
“(This decision) has absolutely nothing bad to say against the volunteers,” Kindig said. “They’ve given their time; they’ve given their effort. They’ve taken away from their personal lives to do the job that they’ve done.”
Jack Miller, the president of the Papillion Rural Fire Protection District, said he was a volunteer firefighter in Papillion for 40 years. He said as communities grow up, it’s harder to find enough volunteers during regular business hours.
“It’s inevitable that as our cities grow that this is what has to happen to give the best service to our community,” Miller said. “The paid department serves the emergency calls much more efficiently and there’s just so many of them anymore that you need that — you need those people there 24/7.”
Miller urged the La Vista volunteers to stick together, as volunteers have in Papillion and Bellevue when those cities went to paid firefighters, and form an organization to support the community.
When Papillion went to a paid department, Miller said response times were improved. With any joint agreement, Black said Papillion would make sure it was adequately staffed to preserve its gains in response times, whether the call originates in Papillion, La Vista or the surrounding countryside.
Transitioning from a volunteer to a paid department can pose challenges as well, especially when it comes to the city’s coffers. Bellevue is struggling with the cost of its professional department, losing firefighters to other communities and struggling to maintain an adequate workforce.
Kindig said La Vista explored several options but concluded the cooperative effort was fiscally responsible and showed leadership in finding ways to use dollars efficiently to provide top-notch service. Black said any such move would be revenue neutral, not costing Papillion taxpayers but not providing any extra income to Papillion’s budget at the expense of La Vista taxpayers.
Finances will be a large part of what the cities study to determine if joining forces is feasible. La Vista is already dipping into its cash reserves to finish paying the final three years of the debt for the La Vista Conference Center.
The city already contributes hundreds of thousands of dollars to the fire department, Kindig said. How the city would pay for a contract with Papillion has yet to be identified.
“We’ll take a look at everything we’ve got,” Kindig said. “Not all of this is going to be new dollars.”
Kindig said La Vista’s fire stations – District 1 at 8110 Park View Blvd. and District 2 at 10727 Chandler Road – line up well with Papillion’s stations.
Black said Papillion had identified a future need for a more southeastern station, with a tentative plan to moving the downtown Papillion station as part of future reorganization. Papillion’s existing stations are at 146 N. Adams St. and 11749 S. 108th St.
The Papillion Fire Department currently employs 39 firefighters, a paid fire chief, a deputy and an administrator. It’s unclear how many more jobs would be created if service to La Vista was added to the department’s duties.
La Vista volunteers recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of their department’s founding in 1962. Members of the department devote at least 12 hours each week to the unpaid job of protecting La Vista residents.
Calls last year exceeded 1,250 — double that of recent years, according to the department. Papillion saw 2,010 calls last year, showing steady growth in the past few years.
During his tenure as mayor, Kindig said he’s enjoyed nothing more than watching new classes of volunteers stand before the City Council as recruits. He said coming to terms with the need to look at other options has been a difficult process for everyone involved.
“I want to say how proud I am that for the last 50 years the residents of La Vista have been protected by men and women who gave selflessly of themselves in the service of their neighbors and strangers alike,” Kindig said. “I have a deep respect for these individuals.”