The Liberty County Commission was updated Thursday on a proposed fire plan that recommends partnering with the county’s cities, except Hinesville, to consolidate fire services.
A unified approach to fire services would improve fire protection for residents and help lower homeowners’ fire-insurance rates, county officials said.
“If we stay where we are today, you will see higher insurance rates,” Liberty County Administrator Joey Brown said.
Last month, county leaders and mayors from Midway, Flemington, Walthourville and Riceboro met with the county’s consultant to review new Insurance Service Office requirements, according to Brown. The consultant told local officials many communities across the U.S. are not adequately funding their fire departments in order for them to grade well under new, stricter Fire Suppression Rating Schedule criteria, the county administrator said.
Brown added that the new rating criteria focuses more strongly on fire prevention now than it did in the past.
In October, the commission agreed to a $6,500 contract with the National Fire Services Office in Sylvania to develop a fire-response plan. This plan should serve to better the county’s ISO rating, county officials said.
A municipal or county government’s fire rating is a measurement of the quality of that community’s fire suppression services. ISO ratings are on a scale from 1-10, with 1 being the most superior rating. Factors such as the number and condition of hydrants and the proximity of structures to those hydrants, a fire department’s equipment and personnel, hours of training logged by firefighters, as well as where fire stations are within a city or county, contribute to a government’s ISO rating, according to iso.com.
The consultant presented county leaders a general to-do list in order to earn a higher ISO rating, according to Brown. Increased manpower topped the list, he said.
To illustrate the need for additional firefighters, Brown pointed out it took county fire personnel 38 minutes to respond to a call of a parking-lot fire at Liberty County High School. District 2 Commissioner Justin Frasier commented that poor response times are a safety issue, and therefore the county is obligated to improve response times.
In addition, the county should initiate a structured weekly training routine, provide annual fire inspections, increase public fire-safety education, build a strong fire-marshaling presence, have a firefighter at all school fire drills, improve the disinfection of fire hydrants, do high-flow flushes every five years, inspect nursing homes and run the department in the most cost-efficient manner.
Brown said the consultant told the county and city leaders a fire authority could be established to oversee unified services. The consultant also suggested the county implement a fire fee to pay for service enhancements, he said. A fee would be divided into categories for residential, commercial, industrial (based on square footage), multi-family and undeveloped land, according to Brown.
The administrator told commissioners the county also could place some fire-apparatus needs on the county’s next SPLOST ballot to be voted on in the November 2014 election.
The proposed $2,890,415 fire-services budget does not include capital-outlay expenses like fire trucks, Brown said. Most of the budget would go toward manning and operational costs, he said.
Brown presented a timetable to set the proposed plan in motion. First, the commission must adopt an ordinance for the plan no later than March 4. The county would hire additional fire service personnel by May 1 and implement the plan beginning Nov. 1.
The commission’s next regular meeting is at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 7.