Nearly a year after its debut, an alliance of firefighting agencies in DuPage County is lauding improvements in its responses to emergencies and outlining more ways to share resources.
The West Suburban Fire/Rescue Alliance includes the Wheaton Fire Department and fire protection districts of Carol Stream, Winfield and West Chicago. It's not a consolidation, but the group aims to build cooperation and reduce costs.
The alliance already has adopted uniform protocols for firefighters and conducts monthly multidepartment training. Now, it's reviewing ambulance fees in each community.
The four fire chiefs recently reflected on the group's success since the alliance went live in February 2012.
"It used to be we had to assign people to everything they did," West Chicago Chief Robert Hodge said. "Now, it's seamless. Our guys go to work. They know what to do based on our standard operating guidelines. Our chiefs know what positions to take to support each other."
Although data is not quite a year old, officials said figures from DU-COMM, a regional service that handles 911 calls for the four municipalities, indicate emergency response times have been significantly reduced since the alliance formed.
In cases of general alarm calls, the time it took for all units -- three engines, three trucks, two ambulances and five command officers -- to arrive at structure fires dropped an average of almost five minutes, they said.
Officials say the faster responses stem from DU-COMM refining a computer-aided dispatch system and a procedure developed by the alliance called "closest station response."
If the first ambulance due to respond to a call in the affected community is busy, then an ambulance from the next closest available station of the 10 in the alliance responds, even if it's from another community. The procedure also applies to fire engines.
For example, if an ambulance from Carol Stream's station on Schmale Road is unavailable and there's an accident on nearby St. Charles Road, an ambulance from Wheaton's station on North Main Street responds. Before the alliance, the ambulance would have come from another Carol Stream station.
Pre-alliance depletion policies constrained the availability of equipment, officials said.
"We said basically we'll only send you one of what we have because we have to protect the rest of town," Carol Stream Chief and alliance President Rick Kolomay said. "We weren't getting all the resources to the fire as quickly as we should because we had to skip towns to keep reaching for one of these and one of those because that's all they could give us."
Now, the alliance also fills voids when a chief or deputy chief, fire engine, ladder truck and ambulance deploy to the headquarters station of a community with a working fire to plan for any additional emergencies that could arise.
Kolomay said the group continues to study how emergency calls break down in each town. He also left open the possibility of the closest fire station responding in all cases.
"It's a hybrid right now because we don't want to tax our neighbors just yet for calls that we can handle, although we're not the closest at that point," Kolomay said. "But I'm not going to say that we're not going to go there. We're going to look at those numbers."
Meanwhile, the alliance has been reviewing ambulance fees in response to a request from municipal managers and fire trustees to see if there are ways to find common ground, Kolomay said.
One proposal would allow an agency transporting a resident in another community to charge that community's resident rate -- a move that would require approval from the federal Office of Inspector General, officials say. Under that scenario, if a Wheaton ambulance, for instance, was responding to a resident in Carol Stream, Wheaton would charge Carol Stream's resident rate instead of the city's nonresident rate. In Wheaton, changes to fee structures need approval from the city council.
Des Plaines approved a similar model with the North Maine Fire Protection District in January.
Another option that met with some criticism during the meeting would charge the average of each community's rate for basic life support and two levels of advanced life support.
Implementing the average would mean a decrease in fees in some communities but an increase in others. Several municipal leaders argued raising fees for some residents would contradict the alliance's goal to improve efficiencies.
"I don't see why that's beneficial to anyone other than to the districts who will raise their fees," said Dan Keck, a Winfield fire trustee.
The beginnings of the alliance go back to 2010, when the four chiefs met to boost efficiency in a time of tight budgets.
Since then, the alliance, among other things, has begun sharing a fitness committee and training instructors to save money. The group continues to assess equipment needs and opportunities to share reserve apparatus.
For Kolomay, one particular fire in the summer stood out as an example of the group's success. The heat from a blaze in a Carol Stream barn threatened to ignite neighboring homes at a time when DU-COMM was fielding 10 medic calls within the alliance.
"What saved the day was the amount of resources we had come in and the fact that everybody was on the same page," he said.