New year, new decade, new De Soto fire service
Thursday afternoon, Justin McDaniel was sorting through a stack of insurance cards in Johnson County Rural Fire District No. 3's Kill Creek station.
The cards were to replace those in the fire district's vehicles and those in the De Soto Fire Department. Both departments would cease to exist at the stroke of midnight, to be replaced by the Northwest Consolidated Fire District.
Watching McDaniel sort the cards, fire district veteran Brian DeVader said he had a tinge of sadness about the demise of a department he had served for 12 years.
"It's a little sad, but it's a good thing for everybody," he said. "Plus, although it's new, not much is changing."
Mark Billquest, who moved from his job as operations manager at the fire district to the same position in the consolidated district, said DeVader wasn't the only one with a degree of regret about the fire district's demise.
"Some of the longtime guys feel that way," he said. "I think sadness is too strong a word.”
It was all optimism Thursday at the De Soto Fire Department as the clock ticked toward the consolidation.
"I'm glad we finally consolidated," said Capt. Bob McCoy. "It's good for the community and for us."
McCoy was the sole full-time employee of the De Soto department and is now one of 14 in the consolidated department. He remained at the downtown De Soto station with consolidation.
Much has been done to pave the way for the merger, McCoy said. The departments modified operational and training procedures with the knowledge consolidation was coming, he said.
In his last hours as De Soto fire chief before becoming assistant fire chief of the consolidated department, Kevin Ritter said again endorsed the move and added a philosophical perspective.
"In today's world, everything changes," Ritter said.
Ritter and his Fire District No. 3 counterpart, Terry Zahner — named chief of the consolidated department — earned praise from the five-member advisory committee who pieced together the merger in the past year.
The two chiefs worked out a response matrix more than two years ago that has the closest station responding to calls, McCoy said. The two departments have been training together since September, he said.
That work did much to ease the transition and make this week routine, Billquest said.
As for equipment and manpower, they will continued to be distributed as they were, at least for now.
"That's going to be worked out in the first few months," Billquest said. "We want to have a bigger presence at the De Soto station. We'd like to have two full-time people there."
New shirts with the Northwest Consolidated Fire Department's new logo are in, and some firefighters were wearing them Thursday. But it will be a few months before the more expensive task of replacing logos on vehicles is completed, Billquest said.
The consolidation put an end two fire departments providing service within the city of De Soto. The situation, which stretched back several decades, was a result of the failure of past De Soto City Councils to request detachments from the fire district when they annexed surrounding properties.
The city attempted to resolve that issue by following up the Johnson County Commission granting the city a large annexation in 1999 that doubled the size of the city with a request the county commission detach all property within the city from the fire district.
Commissioners rejected the request, saying it would hurt the fire district's tax base.
Instead, it was the city's fire service tax base that suffered. Supported by only old-town De Soto, its assessment was subject to frequent annual declines in the past decade.
Meanwhile, the fire district dealt with loss of territory on its eastern side as Olathe grew. Because of those frequent requests, that city to raise the possibility of one large detachment or consolidation.
Those two factors helped set the table for consolidation. Discussions that started four years ago were delayed one year as Sen. Julia Lynn, R-Olathe, secured passage of a bill in the 2008 legislative session allowing the two departments to merge as a new entity. Before its passage, state law would have required the fire district to absorb the city fire department