The decision to hire paid firefighters or depend on a declining number of volunteer firefighters is one dilemma facing Liberty County, as it pertains to the county’s comprehensive fire plan.
Liberty County commissioners continue to discuss the county’s fire plan and examine ways to improve the county’s fire rating. Liberty County Fire Coordinator James Ashdown updated the commission on the fire plan following a regular meeting July 18.
Ashdown said one of the challenges the county faces is a shortage of firefighters. He said the county especially could use more volunteer firefighters during the daytime hours in the Gum Branch area.
The fire coordinator commented that the days when all-volunteer fire departments were the norm has come to an end. Ashburn said he understands the county has a tight budget, but stressed there is a need for more personnel and that could mean hiring paid firefighters.
Ashdown said Liberty County currently has a 9 ISO, or Insurance Service Office, rating. 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. 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.
“Liberty County has to keep moving forward toward some degree of staffed fire stations,” Liberty County Commission Chairman Donald Lovette said. “At the end of the day, our citizens are going to have to decide if they want to fund the personnel. Those of us in the incorporated areas sleep well at night knowing we have coverage in the event of a fire. Most times, we also pay lesser insurance premiums due to a lower ISO rating. It is those persons in the unincorporated areas that I am most concerned about. They deserve equal fire protection and cost savings on their insurance premiums. The present county budget will not support the cost. The immediate choices of funding are (to implement) a fire fee or to increase the millage.”
In May, county officials participated in a town-hall forum to discuss the fire plan. The commission had approached the Midway City Council, asking the city to consider charging its residents a fire-protection fee. The revenue from the proposed fee would go toward the operating costs of a paid-force fire station that would serve all residents. As previously reported by the Courier, the Midway council did not agree to the plan, citing a desire to maintain local control and its own volunteer-firefighter team.
The Courier was unable to reach Midway officials for comment by press time.
Liberty County Administrator Joey Brown said the initial fire plan adopted by the county in 2007 called for three additional manned fire stations to be established.
“The county finalized construction of a station in the Gum Branch area and explored a partnership with Midway as a means to establish a second location,” Brown recalled. “The county has also had discussions with Sunbury Fire about the use of their station as the third location and has received favorable consideration. Midway, after some deliberation, politely declined to participate. Therefore, the county now is examining other options for the third location, which may include construction of another station in that general area.”
Brown said county officials want to reduce the county’s ISO rating and therefore help residents save on their insurance rates.
“The reduction of these rates is influenced by many factors; most importantly, the availability of water,” he said. “However, there is also another factor which you cannot put a price tag on. Roughly 80 percent of calls for assistance involve first-responder units. That is, calls for assistance with EMS activities, such as heart attacks and traffic accidents. With a declining volunteer base it is difficult to be able to answer these calls 100 percent of the time. Volunteers are a very important piece of the puzzle and would continue to be, even with full-time personnel in place.”
However, Brown said, given that many people still are struggling in a slow-to-recover economy, most volunteers would “naturally have to focus on their jobs first.”
The commission will spend the next few months discussing, planning and implementing some phase of the comprehensive fire plan, Lovette said.