Fayette struggles with fire protection

Published 2:14 am Sunday, October 25, 2015

The City of Fayette's fire truck sits without its pump in the fire department's garage. The truck is out of service and is expected to be replaced this week. (Sam Gause/The Natchez Democrat)

The City of Fayette’s fire truck sits without its pump in the fire department’s garage. The truck is out of service and is expected to be replaced this week. (Sam Gause/The Natchez Democrat)

FAYETTE — The Fayette Volunteer Fire Department has been without its sole fire truck for weeks, leaving fire protection for residents up to volunteer departments in other parts of Jefferson County.

The pump on the truck is being replaced, Fayette Fire Chief Calvin Jones said, and the truck is expected be back in commission this week. The fire department is currently operating with a brush pickup truck with a 300-gallon water tank.

The pump has been malfunctioning for some time, and Fayette Mayor Rogers King said the nearly 20-year-old truck needs to be replaced.

Email newsletter signup

The out-of-service fire truck is only the latest development in an ongoing struggle Fayette is facing to build its volunteer fire protection program back up.

With no fire truck, residents say they are concerned about their own safety as well as their property.

The rental house Fayette resident Kanayo Ugboaja and his family live in was damaged in a fire in June. Ugboaja said the hydrant nearest to his house was not properly functioning, so firefighters had to go six houses away to get water from another hydrant. Firefighters also ran into some problems with the hoses on the truck properly working.

“I think the truck is just old, and they were working hard; they did a decent job of getting the fire out,” Ugboaja said.

With no operational fire truck in Fayette now, Ugboaja said he is even more worried about a fire.

“It concerns me very, very much,” he said.

Ugboaja said the lack of strong fire protection affects more than just the health and safety of residents and their property.

“It makes insurance costs go up so much, too,” he said. “I would like to buy a house here, but buying a house in Jefferson County, the insurance alone is very, very expensive.”

Fayette’s fire rating fell from an 8 to a 10 — the worst rating given — earlier this year after the city failed to meet criteria set out by the Mississippi State Rating Bureau (MSRB).

As a result of the fire rate dropping, insurance costs for homeowners have increased.

In a rural town stricken with poverty, those rate increases have a big impact on residents, Jefferson County Farm Bureau insurance agent Andy Shannon said. Insurance companies, Shannon said, must charge based on the rating.

“We’ve had it go up from $1,000 to $2,500 (yearly) for someone,” Shannon said. “People live on a fixed income, and there’s not a big working class of people here, and they don’t make the kind of money that can support an increase like that.

“We’ve had some lapses in coverage, too, because people just can’t pay it.”

Fire ratings are evaluated every five years and are graded on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being the best rating, said Ty Windham, superintendent of MSRB’s public protection program. Fayette’s last five-year evaluation was in late 2014.

“When we went out there … the truck was in bad shape, but the main thing that really got them was that they only had two members on the fire department,” Windham said.

The MSRB requires a minimum average of four firefighters on each call. The MRSB sent notices to the City of Fayette, Windham said, in the months following the evaluating outlining improvements that needed to be made to prevent the rating from dropping.

“The first letter went out in October, then January, then March, and, finally, we just pulled the plug on them,” Windham said.

The fire protection situation in Fayette did not happen overnight, Windham said.

“This is something that has been a long time coming,” he said. “We sent a letter to them in 2009 telling them they needed to recruit more personnel and get their average response time up.”

The lack of volunteer firefighters is not a situation unique to Fayette, Windham said.

“It’s not just a problem in Fayette,” he said. “It’s a problem across the state. A lot of the volunteer departments that had good turnout years ago do not now. I don’t know how you recruit them and keep them, but if you knew, you’d probably be making a lot of money.”

When Fayette Fire Chief Jones, who is the only paid firefighter in Fayette, signed up to be a volunteer several years ago, the department had approximately 16 or 17 volunteers.

Numbers have fallen off in recent years, and Jones said the volunteer aspect of being a Fayette firefighter makes it difficult to recruit.

“We don’t do this for the money,” he said. “It’s for the love of your community.”

“Our main goal is to build up our number of volunteers, because we could get five fire trucks, but if we don’t have the volunteers, you’re defeating the purpose.”

Assistant Fire Chief Marlon Buck, who is a volunteer, said he understands why some people may shy away from being a volunteer firefighter.

“Sometimes, it’s hard, especially when you have a family, but it’s something you do for your community, your neighbors,” he said.

Jones has been chief for nine months and said he inherited many of the issues the fire department is facing.

Alderman Arnold Clark said a great deal of turnover in the chief’s seat at the fire department has meant issues such as the maintenance of the fire truck have not been addressed in a timely manner.

Politics have also somewhat played a role, Clark said.

The fire truck, along with the trucks for the other Jefferson County volunteer districts, were purchased by Jefferson County.

Fayette requested fire truck funding several months ago from the Jefferson County Board of Supervisors, but the board sent the city back to gather more information about funding.

Supervisor David Day said the city did not have the details mapped out of how it would go about getting a new fire truck. Clark said the city had not applied for grant funding, which he said should be done before the county spends money on a truck that could be paid for with a grant.

The county later voted 3-2 to assist the city with fire truck funding.

“We’ll do anything we can to help them,” Day said. “The only question was how much responsibility would we have. It was never a question of whether we supported them. We just wanted to know what would our part be.”

Mayor King said the city is working with the Southwest Mississippi Planning and Development District on a grant package for funding. King said the city intends to ask Rep. Bennie Thompson and other elected state officials for letters of recommendation for funding.

The city held a public hearing for the grant application for United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development funds last week, King said, and will submit the application when the proper public advertising is complete.

The city is hoping for approximately $300,000, King said, to purchase a new truck and upgrade firefighter equipment.

King said the city is working hard now to ensure its residents have top-rate fire protection.

“It’s not something we’re taking lightly,” he said.