True test of Barrington-area fire split begins Jan. 1
Agencies says they want to do good job right away
An exchange of letters between the Barrington Countryside Fire Protection District and village of Barrington in late September 2012 began a 15-month process of separating their fire services that becomes real at the stroke of midnight this New Year's Eve.
Only then will the true test of both agencies' preparations begin, during a transitional period that will last anywhere from a minute to a year, depending who you ask.
It will take a year to fully measure the finances of the fire district's newly independent fire department, but the test of its operations should take only a few months, board President Tom Rowan said.
"To me, the measure of success is to provide even better service than we did before," Rowan said. "That's our goal, for people to say, 'Wow, that's a great operation!'"
For Barrington Countryside Fire Chief Jeff Swanson, the obligation to be a great operation starts the moment his crew begins its first shift.
"Our employees are some of the best trained and most competent firefighters in the area," Swanson said. "They are ready. But our goal in striving toward excellence is never-ending."
In addition to fire protection and ambulance service, the fire district will aim to be more community-focused -- providing outreach and education through schools, churches, senior centers and other venues, Rowan said.
The fire district covers 48 square miles that include parts of Barrington Hills, Lake Barrington, South Barrington, Inverness and unincorporated Cook, Lake and McHenry counties.
The district has two fire stations, one in Barrington Hills and one in Lake Barrington. It has begun looking for a third location that will improve response times.
The district has automatic-aid agreements with several neighboring departments, but Barrington is not one of them.
The fire district broke off talks with its longtime contractual partner.
The two agencies will provide one another with the more standard form of mutual aid -- in the case of a big fire, it's all hands on deck -- but they don't have an auto-aid agreement that spells out the specifics of going above and beyond mutual aid.
Countryside is trying to staff itself so it can depend less on mutual aid than before, Rowan said.
Barrington, however, considers the lack of an automatic-aid agreement with its old partner to be unfinished business, Barrington Fire Chief Jim Arie said.
While the Barrington Fire Department is narrowing its focus to the village's five square miles with the more experienced half of its staff, the lack of an auto-aid agreement with a neighbor ignores a basic tenet of emergency service, Arie said.
"It takes some of our closest resources off the table," he said. "That's a change I'd prefer didn't happen."
The fact that fire district equipment will be passing through Barrington to reach areas of its jurisdiction flies in the face of using the closest available resources, Arie said.
While emotions certainly played a role during the separation of the two agencies, Arie said he hopes an agreement can be worked out when cooler sensibilities return.
He just hopes it's not at the expense of anyone's well-being in the meantime.
The separation initially was sparked by fire district trustees' frustration that their requests for more equipment and staff were regularly denied by Barrington officials, who ran the fire service for both jurisdictions.
Now, Countryside trustees say they are satisfied with their starting staffing level. They will study whether their two water tankers are enough, since a large area of their territory is without hydrants, Rowan said.
Both Barrington and Countryside will experience a slight increase in their staffing levels relative to their jurisdiction size -- Barrington to 18 firefighters and Barrington Countryside to 34.
But union members who protested the change this year argue that subtle increases in manpower won't make up for the loss of synergy caused by the split.
Barrington Countryside's staff will consist of 19 firefighters laid off by Barrington, with the rest hired from private contractor Paramedic Services of Illinois.
Countryside's changes were navigated by its appointed five-member board. Though these trustees will take on more day-to-day responsibilities than they once had renegotiating a contract with Barrington every few years, the elected officials who appoint them are pleased with the work the board members have done this year.
Barrington Township Supervisor Gene Dawson appoints three trustees from Cook County and Lake County Board Member Nick Sauer appoints two.
Even if there were a simple way to change the Barrington Countryside board from appointed to elected, Dawson and Sauer see no reason to do so.
"I have full confidence in the fire protection board," Dawson said. "They have analyzed, evaluated and thought through thoroughly this process."
Dawson said keeping the trustees appointed ensures that people with the right experience and professional backgrounds fill important roles, and it excludes politics from the business of saving lives and property.