Amid budgetary challenges, shared services take flight in first ring suburbs

Dwindling population, lower tax bases and decreased government funding often intersect within the first ring suburbs of Cincinnati, similar to maturing suburbs of other regions across the nation. The responsibility of local governments to provide the people of these communities with services remains and falling short on quality is not an option. Maintaining residents’ safety and quality of life is of great importance within neighborhoods, as is attracting new residents.

Faced with costly (but vital) upgrades to equipment, ongoing trainings, tech-web maintenance plus many other unavoidable budgetary drains, finding a way to cover these and other essentials can be a daunting task. Luckily, government leaders in the first ring suburbs have learned some handy tricks over the years, one of which is a simple carryover from kindergarten – sharing.

For decades, communities have reached across jurisdictional boundaries, banding together to form partnerships that increase their access to firefighters, emergency vehicles and law enforcement without busting their bottom lines.

Today, typical mutual aid agreements have given way to creative expansions of this concept, and county efforts along with those of other agencies have strengthened the ease with which communities can work together.

As times change and new expectations and standards come to light, agreements have come to include combined website facilitation, IT services and even borrowing modern safety equipment such as surveillance drones from neighboring localities. Exchanging ideas and tactics for success has also become commonplace, as communities observe and adopt innovative solutions from neighboring areas.

T.J. White, Executive Director of The Center for Local Government (CLG) says that shared services is just one of many tools community leaders can utilize when faced with budgetary challenges, but it is an important one.

“I do not think that shared services alone will necessarily solve anyone's funding issues. It is just one of the tools in a toolbox of many tools. I would say shared services are a tool that can help local governments generate economies of scale,” says White.

While he acknowledges the multiplicity of applicable approaches that can be used by local governments to deal with increased budgetary constraints, shared services facilitation is a main focus of CLG. This includes assistance with the assessment of community needs, the formation of agreements between communities, leadership training, recruitment and much more.

T.J. White, executive director of the Center for Local GovernmentWhite’s expertise in shared services gives him a reputable outlook on the subject, and for this reason he views challenges with an eye on long-term (rather than stopgap) solutions. He states confidently that sometimes things like investment in education for future leadership are necessary (even if it temporarily breaks budget), because the ultimate goal is setting a community up for continuing success.

“Oftentimes, shared services can increase professional capacity or efficiency in ways that are not necessarily easily discerned and on budget,” says White. “A good example is that we have a Leadership Academy designed for mid-level local government employees, amongst our member governments, in order to provide them with practical management knowledge as they move into department head positions. We've had about 175 people go through the academy.”

CLG’s Leadership Academy and its other resources have also strengthened ties between local communities. Valuable alliances have been forged through networking, brainstorming and organizing task forces and consortiums that streamline efforts toward creating and maintaining advantageous shared services arrangements.

Rachel Murray, Communications Coordinator for the City of Blue Ash, has been through CLG’s leadership training program. She has a 20-year background as an award winning communications professional in radio and television news. CLG’s  program helped tailor Murray’s talent and know-how in communications to suit her civics-oriented work.

“CLG Leadership Academy was an amazing experience. Since my background is in the media business, there were a lot of aspects of the inner workings of city government that I was green about, particularly with finance and budgets. The CLG Leadership Academy sessions were extremely informative. There were also hands-on sessions involving communication and collaboration skills that I continue to use in my daily work,” says Murray.

Rachel Murray, communications coordinator for City of Blue AshMedia pro Murray says that while a public relations position in city government wasn’t an anticipated career change, she is overjoyed with the opportunity.

“I absolutely love it here. The people are awesome. Like, I feel like I fell into a pot of gold,” Murray says of Blue Ash. At her current post, she’s become well aware of how neighboring communities operate together and assist one another.

Shared services, shared specialized equipment

“Montgomery is close to us. Sycamore Township is close to us. Our fire department responds to Sharonville, Evendale – pretty much all the surrounding communities,” says Murray. “The way it was described to me from the fire chief, a typical structure fire response gets three to four departments responding other than the jurisdiction where the emergency is located. So if something's happening in Blue Ash, typically three or four departments from other cities or townships are coming here to help.”

‘The only negative that our fire chief has brought up is that if there are a lot of runs at once, they sometimes run into challenges. If others are tied up, then they can't help Blue Ash. But then, there are other surrounding communities that they can go to,” assures Murray.

All of these connections are extensively laid out by the EMA, ensuring that dispatch won’t run out of options regardless of the scenario.

Per the Hamilton County Emergency Management Agency website: “The Ohio Fire Chiefs’ Association created the Ohio Fire Service Emergency Response System to provide local jurisdictions with a method to quickly summon additional fire service resources within the state to handle major emergencies when local mutual aid capabilities have been exhausted. The System provides for the rapid activation, mobilization, and response of aid to a community in the event of a localized disaster.”

Mutual aid agreements encompass not only emergency aid but also extend to more day to day needs for specialized equipment, animals and human resources that may be hard to come by – or hard to afford.

In terms of how this works in Blue Ash, Murray explains, “As far as the police department, they have mutual aid agreements with all agencies in Hamilton County. So they also share resources – like their drones, the canines and even officers who speak multiple languages. Processing equipment and things like that, they share. The fire department is kind of similar. If  they have some equipment that another department needs in another community, then they share it. It's sort of reciprocal that way.”

Murray adds that sharing of equipment extends to public works as well.  She reports that West Chester Township borrows Blue Ash’s vacuum truck. West Chester’s pipe camera is conversely loaned to Blue Ash in situations of broken pipes or floods. Montgomery shares its large, pricey mower attachments with Blue Ash when they are needed.

CLG also facilitates this as far as protocol and management of inventory. The Hamilton County EMA website states: “The CLG develops the Public Works Mutual Aid Manual which includes a list of the participating jurisdictions with contact information, a selective inventory of each jurisdiction’s public works equipment, and an appendix which details frequently asked questions about the pact and includes a copy of the agreement.”

All of this detailed organization is enabled by the efforts of Hamilton County with the assistance of other agencies like CLG. Notably, valuable shared services  facilitation is given to all local communities as a built in resource through Hamilton County’s participation in the Intrastate Mutual Aid Compact (IMAC), in which all local jurisdictions are automatically included (unless they choose to opt out). This helps them to cut costs while collectively staying safe and well equipped. 

“In these cases of our police, fire and public works, shared services are a big cost benefit to us,” says Murray.

One of the newest and most cutting-edge resources: surveillance drones

"Chief Amos Johnson of the Woodlawn Fire Department heads up the UAS500 Southwest Ohio Regional Drone Team, which is comprised of fire, police, K-9, and volunteer members. UAS500 has been in existence for about two years and has responded to a myriad of different calls during that time,” says UAS500 member Lieutenant Steve Schueler of the Blue Ash Police Department.

UAS stands for Unmanned Aircraft Systems. UAS500 Program originator Chief Johnson says he likes to be on the forefront of things when it comes to firefighting. Considering his enthusiasm, it’s no surprise he quickly but carefully instituted the UAS500 soon after noticing the vantage point attainable on a toy drone one of his firefighters was flying in the back of the firehouse. This was a few years ago during the 20-plus year firefighting veteran’s first years serving as Woodlawn’s chief.

Johnson had instinctively and immediately shown interest in the drone as a firefighting tool. When his crewman informed him that firefighters in neighboring areas were using drones to assist with fires and other emergencies, he didn’t want to hesitate a moment on adopting new technology that others were successfully using. Johnson’s mind spun with possible applications involving his own territories and the scenarios they commonly presented.

His first move was securing a PWC grant for drone operation courses. He headed to Flamingo Air Flight School and received the required FAA certification to operate drones in federal airspace. Others were quick to jump on board.

Initially formed by Woodlawn firefighters and Blue Ash police, the UAS500 Southwest Ohio Regional Public Safety Drone Team now has around 25 trained members. The team is continuously amazed at the ever-expanding myriad of capabilities provided by the drones. And since the group’s inception, things have really taken off.

“We've been on a couple of structure fires, and once the fire chiefs actually see the advantage now, they're like, ‘Okay, we want you to come on our scene. We want to see this vantage point.’ It’s to the point where now where we're a dispatchable unit for Hamilton County,” says Johnson.

With transmittable overhead views that can be accessed from multiple locations, including dispatch, the team has seen incredible progress in first responder safety and direction. The guesswork once done on the ground is nearly eliminated with drones providing team leaders a bird’s eye view of scenes. The UAS500 has already been able to locate missing children and survey SWAT scenarios safely without taking extra time or putting responders at risk.

“Usually if somebody is barricaded in the house, SWAT would have to go through these protocol flashbangs. Break a window, then we need to throw gas in there before they go in and do anything. Now, they just break a window. They call us. We fly the drone in. Go find the guy in the house,” sums Johnson.

They have even helped to keep the peace in crowded and hard to navigate situations by monitoring events like the WEBN fireworks.

Additionally, the UAS500 has become a frontrunner in developing training guidelines for other agencies looking to adopt emergency drone programs.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology uses the UAS500’s personally developed guidelines for public safety as part of their rapidly developing emergency drone training. The team’s own experience navigating regulatory aspects of drone operation helped them in drawing up this essential guide, which lays out the protocols for setting up a successful and permissible drone program.

“This is what you need to know, and this is what you need to tell your insurance company or your fire chief or police chief,” explains Johnson, regarding some of what’s covered in the guidelines.

Hamilton County continues its focus on encouraging and educating communities on utilizing shared resources, both old and new. Planning Services Administrator Chris Schneider says Hamilton County will be hosting a shared services summit sometime in April that will explore ways services are shared in the county. Per T.J. White, CLG plans to attend, bringing to the table a presentation on recruitment of local government and service professionals.

Chief Johnson is grateful to 859 Board Up for helping with fundraising efforts for UAS500. 859 Board Up is a disaster cleanup and assistance company helping property owners deal with the havoc raised when facing a fire. To make further contributions towards UAS500’s efforts, visit the group’s Facebook page.

The First Suburbs—Beyond Borders series is made possible with support from a coalition of stakeholders including Mercy Healtha Catholic health care ministry serving Ohio and Kentuckythe Murray & Agnes Seasongood Good Government Foundation - The Seasongood Foundation is devoted to the cause of good local government; LISC Greater Cincinnati LISC Greater Cincinnati supports resident-led, community-based development organizations transform communities and neighborhoods; Hamilton County Planning Partnership; plus First Suburbs Consortium of Southwest Ohio, an association of elected and appointed officials representing older suburban communities in Hamilton County, Ohio.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Eliza Bobonick.

Eliza Bobonick is a Cincinnati-based writer and a mother of three. Her work has been featured in such local and regional publications as Cincinnati CityBeat and Kentucky Homes and Gardens Magazine. She is a former musician whose interests include photography and interior design.