Liberty County fire coordinator James Ashdown outlined a tentative fire protection plan for the county for commissioners Wednesday night, in which he shared both immediate and long-term goals for maintaining and improving fire protection services to residents.
“Basically, everything is geared around money,” Ashdown said. “I guess if we were rich we could fix everything.”
He said while across the nation approximately $104 per capita is spent on fire services, $80 per capita is spent in Georgia, and just $9 per capita is spent locally.
Ashdown shared with commissioners the current status of the fire service and its seven volunteer-staffed departments. From eight county stations, 72 first responders and 72 certified firefighters answer calls in unincorporated Liberty County. Ashdown and one administrative assistant work on a part-time basis; the administration position is currently vacant, he said.
Ashdown emphasized that efforts to improve fire service are ongoing and showing progress. “We may be further ahead in some areas, but we have lapsed in other areas.”
The presentation included a list of immediate needs, including:
• renaming Ashdown’s post a chief or director post to help him more effectively manage volunteer departments
• establishing a comprehensive water supply plan that will ensure on-site demands can be met.
• establishing first responder protocols with the medical director
• assessing a service fee of approximately $108.63 to help cover costs.
• meeting and maintaining ladder testing requirements
Long-term goals include:
• creating a paid county department
• opening county-operated stations on the east and west end of the county
• purchasing additional tankers for Gum Branch and Walthourville, and service trucks for Fleming, the eastern district and Gum Branch
• constructing new stations for Gum Branch and Midway, and placing paid staff in Midway to better respond to the area’s high call volume
• constructing a central training facility for live burn and vehicle extrication exercises
Ashdown shared other concerns related to the organization’s ability to effectively operate within the county. “One of my biggest concerns is the industrial park (in eastern Liberty County),” he said. “We do not have anything in place to protect the Firth Rixson facility.”
Firth Rixson continues to construct its facility at Tradeport East but infrastructure that would support fire protection services has not yet been put in place, he explained.
Ashdown said he has met with the Liberty County Development Authority about the issue, which could be made more difficult now that Firth
Rixson has signaled intentions to staff the office space in its facility within the next few months.
“Without water, I can’t be held responsible for safety.” Ashdown said. “As I’ve explained to the development authority, we’ve got to plan ahead.”
The county service does have new tankers to accompany fire trucks on calls but could use additional tankers, Ashdown said. Additionally, he recommended the county establish an apparatus replacement program that includes placing into reserve some funds to cover the cost of replacing damaged or non-functioning equipment.
Expired rescue certifications, a lack of community storage for equipment, safety education for rural-area schools and the loss of volunteers also ranked high among concerns.
Ashdown said providing incentives could help keep volunteer firefighters working in the county. He suggested the county pick up the tab for a state retirement plan; many volunteer firefighters pay the $15 monthly fee themselves. Additionally, he said, stipends to reimburse volunteers for fuel costs associated with responding to calls and an awards program may also serve as reasonable incentives.
County administrator Joey Brown pointed out that the county does reimburse for the cost of workers’ compensation coverage, but Ashdown replied that it did not cover pay lost at a volunteer’s regular job, only medical expenses. “Financially, they can get upside down” if they’re injured on a call and can’t return to work, he said.
Brown said at the end of the presentation, he and Ashdown agreed to collaborate on producing an implementation strategy for the board to consider. “The strategy would look at possible phase- in of the plan,” he said.