When Mr. Stith was the Fire Chief in 2013, the Suwannee Democrat wrote a very interesting piece regarding White Springs:
EVEN MR. LAND, AS FAR BACK AS 2013, DIDN’T BELIEVE IN STITH OR THE WSVFD
Jasper — At the Oct. 1 meeting of the Hamilton County Board of County Commissioners, a last minute item that was added to the agenda was discussed in great detail; consolidation of all local fire departments into a single Hamilton County Fire Department under the authority of the board.
Emergency Management Director Henry Land said a state ISO (Insurance Service Organization) inspection was recently done at the White Springs Fire Department and soon the others in the county would be inspected, as well.
The ISO assigns a Public Protection Classification number from 1 to 10 after their inspection and Class 1 generally represents superior property fire protection, while Class 10 indicates the area’s fire-suppression program doesn’t meet ISO’s minimum criteria.
“There are several deficiencies in White Springs that we’re trying to work on,” said Land. “One of the things that we must overcome is the lack of personnel able to respond. White Springs is not the only fire department in the county that has this issue. Not only do you have to have the correct number of bodies, but they also have to be trained. Just having people on a roster does not suffice the requirements,” Land added.
The higher an ISO rating, the higher insurance premiums will be for people in the county, Land explained, and could possibly affect auto insurance rates, as well
“If you’re even able to get insurance on your property,” he said.
Land has met with all the city managers to try to come up with the best solution. One suggestion was to put just the responders under the umbrella of the county. Another was to combine the entirety of each fire department under the umbrella of the county, which would include all assets and all responders.
“There’s many positives and negatives to either direction that you go,” Land told the board. “First and foremost, you’ve still got to have volunteers,” said Land. “You still have to train them. There’s still going to be money spent somewhere along the way. It will either be the individual departments spending money or the county spending money. Someone’s going to pay the price.”
Land said the small cities within the county cannot continue to afford the expense of running their fire departments.
“Since the early 80s, the fire department has come from just responding to fires, to responding to a whole, broad spectrum of emergency response,” said Land. “The duties and demands of the fire department have greatly increased over the years.”
Land said he was glad it was the board who had to make the decision and not just himself. He also said the county does, and has, supported the city departments in the past, but some things needed improvement.
“If we do not get the appropriate personnel in there, there’s just not going to be the response that is required,” said Land. “It has to be handled where it’s beneficial for everyone, not only the cities, but the county.”
Land said he is working diligently throughout the county to get more people trained and that PCS will also make sure their volunteer fire personnel have time allocated to go through training.
Equipment deficiencies in the county is another issue, such as the Crossroads Fire Station, which has water and termite damage, and no safe parking in front of the building, which was originally constructed by the volunteers from rough cut lumber cleared from the land and metal.
“If we’re going to tear it apart, we might as well make it feasible for future growth out there,” said Land. “That is one of the strongest stations we do have in this county.”
The cost of using a volunteer is about 6-10 percent of the cost of paying a full time employee, Land continued. If the volunteers decide to quit, Land said, the county will need to look elsewhere in order to provide fire protection for all county residents.
“It’s not suited for everyone,” Land said. “Not everyone can do this anymore.”
All current volunteers, however, have said they are more than willing to participate in the training to become certified, Land said.
“We’re trying to recruit people, but it’s an awful lot of time for a person to invest in something,” Said Land. “We’re talking 206 hours and then the additional training annually on top of that. They’re going to have another 80 mandatory hours a year, on top of responding to calls. It’s still a large savings compared to full time employment of firefighters.”
Another sticking point is that ISO does not consider mutual aid in their ratings. For instance, if the Genoa Fire Department, which is a county department, responds to a fire in the town of White Springs, they are considered mutual aid because it’s a separate district and separate jurisdiction.
Should the county assume all the fire departments they would be responsible for all personnel, including the volunteers, they would handle all the PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) requirements and liability, and all the training.
“The only thing that White Springs would maintain would be the trucks and the equipment,” said Land.
The problem with that scenario, Land said, is that the county would have no way of knowing if the trucks are being properly maintained because they wouldn’t be involved in that aspect.
“Whenever you’re going inside a burning structure, you want to know in your mind that the truck is maintained and is going to function as needed,” said Land. “The guys on the end of that hose, their lives depend on it.”
Land explained that he wasn’t suggesting the trucks were not being maintained, but only that the county would be placed more at risk by not having a handle on it.
Commissioner Josh Smith mentioned that the Jennings Fire Department received $17,000 from the county. He said he wanted to see a complete breakdown of how each fire department used the funds that were given to them from the county before the board made any kind of decision on how to move forward. The current issues they are facing with the fire departments, Smith said, didn’t just get this way overnight and are probably due to negligence over the years.
“Where are you spending your money?” Smith asked. “Show it to me. I’m not so sure we’d get an answer we’d like. Holding these departments accountable for the expenditures of this funding is probably where we need to start.”
Another issue with combining the fire departments is the fire chiefs. Genoa and Crossroads are already being paid by the county, so they are fine, but in Jennings, Jasper and White Springs, they are being paid by the individual cities. Should one of those city fire chiefs respond to a fire outside their city they would be considered mutual aid by ISO and not be counted in the total number of appropriate responders for that particular incident. It was noted that in order for the consolidation to work to satisfy ISO requirements, the county would have to assume liability and worker’s compensation for all firemen, including the chiefs, as well as be responsible for supplying bunker gear, paying for annual physicals, and whatever other expenses that would be incurred for every fire employee and volunteer. Land said that would have an impact on his budget.
Commission chair Randy Ogburn said whatever funds the cities have been using for the above mentioned expenses needs to be turned over to the county. Land interjected that in his conversations with the city managers, 80 percent of their fire budget goes toward liability insurance.
The critical issue that needs to be corrected by Dec. 20, is to keep White Springs from getting an unsatisfactory ISO rating. The first step to resolving the issue, Ogburn said, is to have County Coordinator Louie Goodin get from each fire department a line item budget for the current year, which was just approved, and the last three years, along with a list of the money that has been paid per call and how it was spent. The matter will be brought up again at the next county commission meeting for further action.
“It’s going to take teamwork to make it work,” said Ogburn.