There were 3,871 calls to Liberty County Fire Services for help in unincorporated Liberty County in 2016.
Of those calls, more than 80 percent were for something other than a fire. Around a quarter went unanswered.
Officials say the growing demand for emergency services, especially first responders, along with a decline in the number of volunteers, show the need to do what Liberty County is planning to do - basically, build a professional county fire department augmented by volunteers.
Residents can learn of those plans, which will eventually cost homeowners in the unincorporated areas an annual fee, during a series of public meetings.
The first is at 6 p.m. Thursday at Gumbranch Fire Station. Another is set for 6 p.m. April 18 at the East End Community Complex, and a third is 6 p.m. April 25.
The county’s website calls the meetings by county commissioners an outreach “as part of their effort to increase the availability of fire protection services to the rural areas of the county….”
Those meetings are also to get feedback on proposed fees to pay for the service.
At the recent annual countywide workshop on St. Simon’s Island, County Administrator Joey Brown said the county’s plan was “really about the need for first responders,” and then told the story of a day not long ago when a wreck on I-95 caused a fire that tied up two fire departments at the same time two other calls, one a car wreck, stressed first responders’ ability to respond.
That stress is not unusual, officials say.
For various reasons, more than 1,000 of the 3,871 calls to the county’s six stations in 2016 went unanswered.
It could’ve been a false alarm, it could’ve been a lack of resources, Brown said, “but the bottom line is nobody went.”
Officials say that’s due in part to the same reasons fewer people volunteer to officiate high school sports or sign up for civic clubs. They simply don’t have as much time as they used to.
Mike Hodges, Liberty County’s EMA director and head of Fire Services, has seen the decline in firefighters first hand.
“Four years ago, when I assumed the duties of Fire Service, we had about 120 volunteers,” Hodges said. “Today there are about 40-45 volunteers that are able to devote time and are able to run calls and do the required training.”
This decrease in the number of people who have the time to volunteer is happening at the same time the number of calls is going up, according to Hodges.
“We have some departments that are dispatched to 25 to 30 calls per day,” Hodges said. “Our volunteers are great and we need them to continue participating with us, but we have to try to take some of the load off of them and give the residents the confidence that someone is coming to their aid.”
While most residents likely want to see improved fire protection, complaints have already arisen about the county’s plan to pay for the service.
In March, county commissioners approved a fire fee for property owners in the unincorporated areas of Liberty County.
That fee schedule is still being tinkered with, Brown said. One possibility is to base the fees on property values - for example, property worth $150,000 would result in an annual fee of $138 - while another is to simply assess a flat fee, or figure out some sort of combination.
The first year’s cost of the project will be $3.8 million, but that includes startup expenses funded through SPLOST, which will pay for buildings and equipment.
The second year is projected to cost around $1.8 million.
The plan calls for 24 firefighters and a full time administrative assistance manning three fully staffed stations, along with five volunteer stations, with the headquarters at Miller Park.
The county service will include volunteer firefighters, who Brown said could see some sort of stipend to help defray the costs they incur while volunteering.
Mutual aid agreements with city departments and funds to pay Walthourville and Riceboro fire departments for help on calls are also in the plan.
In the meantime, Liberty County won’t be alone in assessing a fee for such services. Bryan County has had a fire fee in place for years, and in 2013 increased it to $145 annually as part of a “compromise” budget that included a smaller than planned increase in the millage rate.
Bulloch County also has rural fire tax districts which assess fees, and in Effingham County residents have paid a fire fee on their tax bills since the early 1990s. A benefit, officials say, is that funding helps improve departments, which will eventually help to lower ISO ratings, and that in turn will cut insurance premiums for property owners.
At present, the entire Isle of Wight area is rated a class 10 because of its distance from a fire station, according to the county. Hinesville, by contrast, is rated a Class 3.