Plan leaving firefighters up in smoke?

Published 12:22am Sunday, May 26, 2013

NATCHEZ Fire can’t distinguish between career and volunteer firefighters, and the new plan for county fire protection is counting on that.

In the last year, much of the discussion between the Adams County and Natchez city governments about both short- and long-term fire protection has focused on money. Coupled with the discussion of funding has been how responding to every minor fire outside the city limits has been taxing on the Natchez Fire Department’s resources.

The recent agreement representatives from the city and county governments were able to broker with the help of a consultant and the county fire coordinator, however, has seemingly settled those issues, at least for the time being.

A key component of that plan is increased response from the county’s volunteer fire departments.

And where one need is met, another arises.

“If they are going to require us to answer more calls in the county, we are going to need more trained volunteer firefighters,” Foster Mound Volunteer Fire Chief Eddie Ray said. “We are proud to answer the bell when it rings, but with this plan you will have to have more volunteers to go answer these calls.”

The plan

At times, last fall’s discussions became acrimonious about what would be an equitable arrangement for city firefighters to respond to calls outside the city limits — for a few days, the county government considered and even advertised to hire firefighters for an independent fire district.

The city and county governments finally agreed to have representatives meet and craft a plan for future arrangements.

Since the mid 1990s, the county has paid a fee for the fire department to respond to fires in rural Adams County. Under the new arrangement — which was crafted by a joint committee that included Natchez Mayor Butch Brown, Supervisor David Carter, NFD Chief Oliver Stewart, County Fire Coordinator Stan Owens and consultant Jay Fitch — much will stay the same. For $635,243, the NFD will continue to respond to fires in the rural areas.

But the new plan also calls for the NFD’s responses to fires outside the city limits to decrease over the next 18 months to approximately 25 percent of total city and county annual, non-medical calls. In August 2012, Natchez Alderman Dan Dillard said calls outside the city limits made up between 30 and 40 percent of total calls.

When Fitch made the presentation of the new plan to the supervisors May 13, he cited grass fires as an example of calls the NFD responds to that he believed could be handled by volunteers. That’s why a key component of the plan is to strengthen training, capacity and recruitment for the county’s volunteer fire departments.

The need

Ray said the Foster Mound Fire Department currently has 15 volunteers.

But because they’re volunteers, not every one can answer every call. Sometimes family commitments and emergencies get in the way, and sometimes their employment keeps them from being able to fight fires.

“I have my pager with me at work and my boss will work with me and I can answer a call if a fire is bad enough, but some of my guys work shift work, another one of my guys is a truck driver,” he said.

Kingston Volunteer Fire Department Chief Donald Johnson said getting volunteer firefighters to sign up in their communities only makes sense for those firefighters — they’re protecting their own property and the lives of their friends, neighbors and loved ones.

But those stations are going to need men and women who are not only willing to lend protection but can respond during working hours.

“We have the people, but unlike the city department all our people work (other jobs) during the day, and that is where the recruitment is going to come in — we have got to get a crew to cover the day time.”

Johnson said his station currently has 12 volunteers. To be able to properly respond to an increased number of fires, he said the department would need 20.

The other side of increased recruiting will be the need for increased funding, at least for equipment, Ray said, with basic protective fire turnout suits costing approximately $2,000 from helmet to boots.

First step to solution

Part of the solution to the need for new recruits comes in the form of a 21-year veteran of the NFD, Darryl White, who was recently hired to be the county’s assistant fire coordinator.

A captain at the NFD, White is the department’s training officer and serves as an adjunct instructor with the Mississippi Fire Academy. He’ll start the county position June 17.

Owens — who is also the county emergency management agency director — said the assistant fire coordinator position was created with the goal of streamlining recruiting and training for county fire departments.

“I wear many hats here, and this is going to relieve me of that hat,” Owens said. “I don’t get to spend a diligent enough time on fire service because I am doing other emergency management duties, but I look for Darryl to spend as much of his time as possible focusing on the county fire service.”

As an instructor with the fire academy, White already has experience with the current chiefs and volunteers, and Owens said the county fire office will encourage his continued participation in the fire academy program in part because it will take him to other counties so he can see how they run their programs.

White said his first order of business will be to go out and introduce himself to everybody he doesn’t know. After that, they’ll work together to bring in new recruits, he said.

“I want to do this, to take the knowledge I have with the fire department in the city and bring that to them,” he said.

“I like to go out there and give my experience and give them education on the fire service.”

White said he also believes that the time he has spent in the NFD responding to fires in the county has been beneficial in helping him get to know the areas and the people with whom he will be working.

The key, he said, is pulling together.

“We need to get the volunteers to understand that when they get started, they are going to be the lead response on some things like grass fires, and there are some things they are going to have to learn,” he said. “We are going to have to work with the city also, we are not trying to put one against the other because we —the whole City of Natchez and all of Adams County — are all one. We have got to be in this together.”

As far as funding for volunteer firefighter gear goes, Owens said the issue will have to be addressed in the coming budget cycle, which the county will start preparing for in earnest in August. In the meantime, Owens said he has applied for grants through the Assistance for Firefighters Program through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

But even before budgeting and equipment issues can be resolved, there’s one thing that is absolutely needed — firefighters.

Ray said the volunteer fire departments will accept an application from anyone, and that once they pass a background check they can begin attending meetings and — after three months — begin training.

“I know there are some people who say, ‘I can’t do much, I can’t go into a house and fight a fire,’ but that’s OK,” Ray said. “You need people who can stand by the truck and be the scene safety officer, who can be the eyes who look at the whole picture, or you need someone to be the incident commander.”

“There is a lot more to fighting a fire than running a hose to a house.”

Adams County has four volunteer fire departments, at Kingston, Lake Montrose, Foster Mound Road and Liberty Road.

The county also has an unmanned fire station at the Hardy-Anders Field Natchez-Adams County Airport.