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Savannah, Georgia

Keywords: Fire Services, Failed Contract

Fire Services

On the south side of Savannah, Georgia, fire protection services had historically been provided by Southside Fire Protection, Inc., a non-profit fire department with a mix of full-time professional staff and local volunteers. The city of Savannah annexed the South Side in the late 1970s, but Southside Fire continued to provide fire service to this part of the city. The rest of the Savannah metropolitan area was served by the citys own professional fire crews. By the late 1990s South Side Fire was responsible for about a third of the citys fire service.

As the South Side continued to grow, concerns were raised about the differences in service quality between the City of Savannah Fire Department and Southside Fire. Whereas previously the area consisted of mainly single family housing, over the years the South Side grew to include two major shopping malls, a number of multi-story office buildings, several car dealerships, and a variety of other commercial developments. Responding effectively to these types of calls required a different method of firefighting than what Southside Fire could offer. In addition, the number of city firefighters responding to each call was always the same, whereas the number of Southside volunteers responding to calls varied at each event.

Following two and a half years of planning and debate, the city terminated its contract with the private company in early 1998. The decision to take over the service was made by city staff and elected officials. One of the most vocal proponents of the change was the city council representative from the South Side, who argued that the quality of service from the private company was inferior to that offered by the city.

South Side Fire Protection fought hard to protect their business. However, the owners of the company lacked credibility in the eyes of most city council members, and failed to reverse the citys decision to take over the service. The city was increasingly concerned with service quality and response times on the South Side. More importantly, the cost of service had risen during the life of the contract. The city found itself paying the company for equipment and stations over and over again, and the company would increase its charges to the city on a yearly basis.

The extent to which South Side Fire was overpriced relative to the city was made clear during the final round of negotiations with City Council. In a last-ditch effort to save its business, the company offered to provide the service at a significantly lower price than what it was currently charging. This sudden drop in price only angered city officials, who wondered how much, and for how long, this supposed non-profit organization was overcharging them.

The decision to take over fire protection in the South Side was facilitated by the fire fighters union. Several years ago the union realized it needed to get competitive, and worked with city administrators to reorganize the department and make it more efficient. This strong relationship with the union made it easy for city officials to support the takeover.

Between forty and fifty new union jobs have been created with the expansion of the city department. Around twenty-five of the new hires came directly from South Side Fire Protection. City wages and benefits were only slightly higher than their non-union counterparts at South Side.

Since the City took over fire services fifteen months ago, service quality has improved dramatically. During its first year of operation the city estimates that the new arrangement has saved taxpayers over $200,000, and expects savings to increase as the program matures.

Case based on interview with Michael Brown, City Manager, June 25, 1999.