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posted: 12/4/2013 12:10 PM

Editorial: 'Divorcing' fire districts need time to find common ground

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

There's not much we can say that will influence the approaching split of the Barrington Fire Department and the Barrington Countryside Fire Protection District. Both boards say it's a done deal. Each seems comfortable with the division, scheduled to occur Jan. 1, and both bodies purport to come out of this as winners.

So why are we so worried?

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For starters, there are the details still to be worked out. One of the unintended consequences of this divorce is that after Jan. 1, fire and paramedic service to the west side of Inverness will come from several miles further away. Homeowners in western Inverness and north of Dundee Road, including an area just 1.5 miles north of the Palatine Rural Fire Protection District station, pay taxes to the Countryside district. The nearest Countryside station, however, is five miles away.

What made this manageable in the past were automatic aid agreements that permitted departments closest to an emergency scene to respond. But less than a month from Jan. 1, those agreements have been canceled, with no deals in sight to revive them. Palatine Rural and Countryside are at loggerheads, and as Barrington and the fire district work out last-minute automatic aid details, the provision that would continue to have Barrington help protect the west side of Inverness seems to be off the table.

In the larger scheme of things, coverage of a portion of one small town may seem to be a small issue. Countryside, a heretofore "paper" district that collected taxes and paid most of them over to Barrington for fire protection, initiated the split to have more control over the personnel and equipment needed to protect its 45 square miles. But the success of this de-consolidation -- or any merger or split among suburban governments -- rests on the success of the smallest details. And while many automatic aid pacts are essentially gentlemen's agreements between fire departments, this one is complicated by money.

Inverness Village President Jack Tatooles has the right idea. He points out that the west side of Inverness is much closer to the Palatine Rural station, which already covers most of the eastern two-thirds of Inverness. But that approach is held up amid haggling between the rural district and Countryside over whether that's really preferable and how to pay for it if it is.

Clearly, the west side of Inverness would be better served with a nearby fire station. But it's also pretty clear that Countryside has a big hill to climb. The new fire district is about to take over covering an expanse stretching from Lake Barrington to South Barrington -- an area of large homes, many barns and very few fire hydrants.

None of the bigger issues can be solved in the three weeks remaining until the split takes effect, but this is an important safety issue. Palatine Rural and Countryside should agree on an interim solution that gives Inverness the protection it needs immediately while the governments take their time to work out these difficult details.

All the while, by the way, demonstrating the complex challenges that make providing security against fires such a challenge to administer among multiple departments in proximity with each other.

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