Fire protection: Was the county ready?Published 12:05am Sunday, September 16, 2012
NATCHEZ — The men who were almost charged with being the sole fire protection for county residents admit they didn’t feel fully prepared for the job.
But as city and county leaders made offers, counteroffers and fast decisions, the volunteer firefighters, several who have manned county stations for years, had no choice but to wait — and worry — it out.
Kermit Boykin, a volunteer at the Foster Mound Volunteer Fire Department, said he was ready to take on the challenge of providing fire protection to his area without help from the city, but he thought the situation developing last week left inadequate time for planning and could have led to dangerous situations.
“I was very concerned because we are understaffed, and I think another year will give us time to get the fire stations up and running good,” Boykin said.
Under an agreement reached Friday, Boykin and the county — now with help from the city — will get another year to firm up their plan. The long-term goal, and the sticking point that saw the existing city-county fire protection agreement go up in smoke earlier this week — is to have manned fire stations in the county.
County leaders and residents want manned stations in order to improve response times. The distance from city fire stations to many locations in the county is simply too far, they say.
Foster Mound Fire Chief Eddie Ray said the agreement in place since the mid 1990s to have city firefighters lead efforts upon their arrival and work with the volunteers has been effective.
The city’s professional firefighters will continue to respond to county fires and direct the volunteers on site for now, but both sides will work on a plan to open manned, satellite fire stations in the county.
Kingston Volunteer Fire Chief Donald Johnson said time to work on that plan is exactly what is needed.
“I don’t think either side had all the facts when they sat down at the table (recently),” Johnson said. “I think both sides went about it the wrong way.”
Boykin agreed, saying the governmental leaders making decisions seemed focused primarily on the money.
The argument did begin when the city asked for an additional $132,000 from the county in order to keep the existing fire plan in place. When the county balked at the increase, the city lowered the number to $50,000 but cut back its services.
County leaders opted to hurriedly begin planning to provide their own fully staffed firehouses in just a few weeks, saying they’d hire 13 firefighters.
All the while, Ray and the volunteers thought a better solution might be at hand.
“I think it could have been done smoother, if it had been thought out and if it would have been researched more by both sides,” Ray said. “Because with everything we read in the paper and some of things I heard, why put the public at risk when you could have said, ‘let’s sit down and talk about it.’”
Ultimately, with prompting from Natchez Inc., city and county leaders did sit down and reach the compromise that had volunteers enjoying their weekend much more than they had the previous week.
The county will pay the city $626,000 for the coming year for fire protection.