County hiring firefighters, launching plan

Published 12:04 am Thursday, September 13, 2012

Editor’s note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated an hourly rate of pay for fire fighters based on a 40-hour work week. Under federal law, fire fighters can work 53 hours a week before overtime becomes applicable. The story has been corrected to reflect an annual rate of pay. We regret the error and are happy to set the record straight.

NATCHEZ — Without the guarantee of a fire protection agreement beyond Sept. 30, the Adams County Board of Supervisors decided Wednesday to begin immediately advertising 13 firefighter positions.

“The city has put us in a position where we have to sink or swim,” Supervisors President Darryl Grennell said. “We are going to swim.”

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The 13 positions include six firefighters, six officers and one assistant county fire coordinator, and are meant to staff the Foster Mound Volunteer Fire Department and the Kingston Volunteer Fire Department with one driver-operator and one firefighter each round-the-clock.

In addition to looking for firefighters, Grennell said he has gotten reassurances from the fire support services in Franklin, Jefferson and Wilkinson counties that they would provide assistance to the areas in Adams County that they border.

“In the future, if the city needs our help, we will help them,” Grennell said. “My grandmother used to say, ‘Don’t try to throw stone for stone.’ We are not going to focus on the past. We are going to do what we need to do to protect county residents, that includes everybody inside the city and outside the city.”

The move to advertise for firefighters is in response to the apparent stalemate about fire protection funding between the county and the City of Natchez. Since the mid-1990s the two governments have had an agreement in which the Natchez Fire Department would respond to fires in the county and direct any volunteer firefighters on the scene.

The city had asked for a $132,000 increase in funding for the coming year, then dropped the request to a $50,000 increase with the provision that the city would respond only to structure fires in the county. Tuesday, the Natchez aldermen voted to extend an offer to accept the county’s current level of funding — approximately $576,000 — with an understanding that the NFD would only respond to structure fires in the county.

The supervisors then asked if the city would grant a two-month, $48,000 extension to the contract until a county fire program could be started, city officials apparently balked at the suggestion but took no official action. Natchez Mayor Butch Brown said Wednesday afternoon he had not been informed of the supervisors’ decision that morning.

While the two governments have disagreed in recent weeks, support for the move to staff the county’s fire stations has grown on the ground, said Everard Baker, who serves as a spokesman for the Kingston Volunteer Fire Department’s advisory board.

“The folks who live in around Foster Mound and Kingston, and the adjoining communities, they are really excited about this,” Baker said. “It is just going to be so much better for the citizens living in the county; it is going to help everybody. There is going to be a lot of community support.”

Baker said the Kingston station would have an open house day in early October to invite the public in and possibly recruit new volunteer firefighters. The Kingston station currently has 12 volunteers.

“There will be some hurdles at first, but things will shake out and work out best for the county in the end,” Baker said.

The Kingston station had a meeting of volunteers Tuesday night, which Supervisors Mike Lazarus and David Carter attended. The supervisors said at the meeting the volunteers seemed dedicated and motivated to move forward with the new plan.

The plan the supervisors were working from was drafted by County Fire Coordinator Stan Owens, and in addition to staffing the two firehouses in the county it calls for the future creation of a station in the Beau Pré-Elgin area with six additional personnel.

The plan calls for $150,000 in operating costs on top of a total projected payroll including benefits of $614,212 annually. Firefighters will make $29,120 annually, while officers will earn a yearly $35,360 — both with benefits — and the assistant fire coordinator will take home $40,000 annually in addition to benefits. Salary estimates in the plan were based on the base pay for a starting Adams County Sheriff’s Office deputy.

The plan also calls for the assistant fire coordinator position to eventually evolve into the fire coordinator’s position.

Carter said the board had known the plan would ultimately cost more than the current agreement with the city, but that wasn’t the point. One of the board’s contentions is that, no matter how much they pay the city, the city fire departments are too far away from some county residences to be effective.

“We will be getting a whole lot more than we have been getting,” Carter said. “It is not just a money issue. Government’s responsibility is to protect and serve its people. We are not currently doing it at the level we could do it.”

Supervisor Angela Hutchins said some of the fire equipment the city currently uses is actually in the county inventory, because one year the county bought equipment for the firefighters in lieu of making its cash payment.

Owens said equipment is a low priority right now and that the current focus is on getting the necessary manpower to get a fire program up and running. Owens’ report states that outfitting firefighters with equipment will cost approximately $2,000, but that the county already has some equipment — self-contained breathing apparatuses — in sufficient amounts.

The plan also notes that in the short-term, some areas of the county will remain unprotected, including the Cloverdale area, Cranfield and Fenwick, Stanton and Beau Pré.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Lazarus suggested the county could use the Pickett Building near the port — which the county owns — as a temporary station to cover the Cloverdale and port areas. The supervisors have also discussed the possibility of using road crew members as volunteer firefighters to respond to calls such as brush fires.

In the long term, the plan predicts replacing the Foster Mound station with stations in Morgantown, Broadmoor and Washington, and the Liberty Road Volunteer Department with a LaGrange location to provide better service.