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Countywide fire plan funding questioned

POSTED: July 31, 2007 5:02 a.m.

Liberty County Board of Commissioners unanimously accepted to move forward with a proposal from Emergency Services Consultants for the evaluation and development of a countywide fire protection master plan.
The plan should take 120-150 days to complete, according to ESC senior vice president and project manager Phil Kouwe.
The cost of the plan is about $67,000, and was allocated and adopted in the budget for fiscal year 2008.
Liberty County Fire Coordinator James Ashdown is thankful the county has decided to move forward with the comprehensive plan.
“I appreciate the board moving forward with this plan to help us evaluate what the true fire protection needs are for our growing communities. This is a step forward,” Ashdown said. “This was also the first year the board allocated funds to go directly for training which will help create a library of training materials and videos and afford us the opportunity to bring in certified instructors so our departments may better enable our personnel to keep current on state standards.
“All of this is extremely helpful. But the truth is, we still have a long way to go,” he said.
The board also allocated $3,900 for the volunteer departments to use for equipment repair and, with the adoption of the new budget, it will now move forward in the first phase of improvements for the 9-1-1 systems.
One of the improvements is a new, digital alpha-numeric pager system that will display the physical address of the call, a case number and brief synopsis of the situation.
Despite an increase in this year’s funding, more money may be needed in the near future.
The volunteer departments are facing increased calls because of growth in their jurisdictions. Increased calls, along with a rise in fuel and equipment prices means the money they were allocated would barely meet their needs.
Ashdown initially asked for $20,000 per volunteer department - still a conservative amount, according to several of the volunteer fire chiefs.
This past year, about $9,300 was allocated for each of the volunteer stations. In comparison, the Hinesville Fire Department has received $30,000 for the past 12 years to help fight fires in the unincorporated areas of the county.
This year, the board gave each volunteer department $12,000, a 33 percent increase.
“When you begin to deduct the annual cost of fuel, building utilities, required liability insurance, equipment maintenance and other factors that are necessary to maintain the station and vehicles in proper working condition, that amount dwindles down to nothing pretty quick,” Ashdown said. “It is not unusual to use $8,000 of that budget amount just for fuel.

“These funds provide the bare minimum for the operations of these stations. Before the budget was approved, the Gum Branch Volunteer Fire Department was down to a zero balance due to the extra calls and the mutual assistance they provided during the wildfires,” he said.
Ashdown the Gum Branch firefighters bagged groceries at the Kroger store in Hinesville on July 3-4 to raise money.
Ashdown, Assistant Fire Chief Brad Wall from the Eastern District and Riceboro Volunteer Capt. Dennis Fitzgerald praised the work the volunteer firefighters are doing in makings ends meet.
They pointed out if it were not for the heart and soul of the volunteers who respond to fires in outlying areas, the county would suffer.
They also said the county  should support the volunteer departments with the money they need for basic operations, especially since they are saving money by not having to pay salaries.
The study by ESC will begin to address the actual needs of the fire departments and the community based on statistics.
According to Kouwe, a team of six people will visit the county and spend some time with each department.
Their job will be to analyze equipment, the number of calls, the geographical jurisdictions of the departments and interpret their needs. They will also gather historical data, available GIS data for each community, fire-loss records, training records, and current and future capital assets.
With the gathered statistics, they can develop a long-term plan based on pending subdivisions and possible growth spots, and determine whether the amount of stations currently in place are adequate. They will also identify where future stations may be needed.
“We do these studies with a vision towards 15 years in the future, but it is also a plan that should be reviewed frequently, and changed or amended as needed based on what is happening in the community,” Kouwe said.
“This plan will give us the ability to see where we need to be two, three, five, or 15 years down the line, and that is definitely a plus,” Ashdown noted.
While it benefits the community to have a long-term plan, the volunteer fire departments want the commissioners and the community to keep in mind they have current needs and budgets that can’t wait that long.
Midway Assistant Fire Chief Jeffery Bowen said “This year, my operational budget was approximately $209,000, which is based on the vehicle maintenance and fuel, monies toward personal protective equipment, maintenance and so on. While I’m grateful to receive the $12,000 from the county and the matching funds from the city, I’m still in the red and have to depend on the goodness of the community who supports the volunteer departments and on fundraisers.
“The plan looks good for the future but we all need the funds now, not sometime in the future,” he said.

 

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