WORTHINGTON — With a dozen different fire departments providing service to Nobles County residents, a dispatcher at the Law Enforcement Center often makes a quick decision on which department to page when a residence is on the line between service districts.

While local departments appear to work well together — leaning on each other’s strengths and manpower when it comes to battling blazes that require mutual aid — there exists the potential to improve upon the service.

That’s the basis behind the county’s application to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s State Fire Marshal Division seeking a $25,000 Service Planning Grant.

Nobles County Emergency Management Director/Deputy County Administrator Bruce Heitkamp said the grant is available to applicants who want to evaluate and improve upon fire service, as well as explore future needs.

Heitkamp, less than four months into his role as EM director, considered the grant after hearing concerns from some local fire departments about manpower and equipment during an early November Mutual Aid Association meeting.

Reliant on volunteers, emergency services — particularly ambulance and rescue crews — have a tough time finding enough help. While that isn’t necessarily the case for fire departments at this point, Heitkamp said smaller bedroom communities do have concerns regarding available manpower for a weekday fire call.

If awarded one of the competitive service planning grants (there is $150,000 available statewide), Nobles County would hire a firm to evaluate local fire services.

“Our fire service got pushed and pulled out of shape,” Heitkamp told Nobles County commissioners during a board work session earlier this week. Competitiveness among fire districts to provide services to townships led to the imbalance.

“A competitive market is there and what ends up happening is fire revenues are getting choked out,” Heitkamp said.

He shared with commissioners a story in his own community of Adrian, where the fire department had been discussing the need for a pumper. A used pumper, however, can cost upwards of $600,000.

Is there potential for fire departments to have certain specialties, or to house specific pieces of equipment that serve a larger area, while at the same time building more cohesiveness among firefighters? Those are questions Heitkamp wants to to assess through the study.

“This study will identify 10 things we can do to improve,” he said, noting that the study will generate ideas on what can be implemented within the first year and what may take longer.

“Some of the findings might be things that aren’t going to work around here,” he acknowledged. “I don’t know what’s going to come out of the study.”

Standardizing revenue streams and expenses will be part of the evaluation, Heitkamp said, noting that per-township rates in the county were often based on what a neighboring fire district was charging.

“Townships are paying varying rates for fire service,” he said. “Some are $200 to $250 per section; some are closer to $400.”

Residents of the county who own land within different fire districts question why there is such a difference in the rates, Heitkamp said.

“A study can look at the needs of all of the departments and the townships,” he added. “Maybe there’s justification for why those rates are what they are.”

Commissioner Gene Metz said it comes down to saving constituents and their property.

“I think these departments have to realize they’re getting less and less resources with personnel,” he said. “Does every department fund a whole fleet of equipment? Is that a prudent thing to do?”

Since it's a competitive grant process, Heitkamp said if the county isn’t successful in securing a grant this year, it can apply again next year. He will speak on behalf of the grant application later this month, and anticipates the announcement on grant recipients will be made late in the first quarter.

“We hope to be funded because we feel we can turn our great fire services into even better fire services,” Heitkamp said.

The 12 fire service districts in Nobles County are covered by the following fire departments: Adrian, Bigelow, Brewster, Ellsworth, Lismore, Round Lake, Rushmore, Wilmont and Worthington, with departments outside Nobles County including Fulda, Edgerton and Little Rock, Iowa.