County leaders hope to lower fire ratings

Published 1:02 am Sunday, November 5, 2017

NATCHEZ — County leaders have begun the process of bringing fire ratings down in specific areas, but they say their goal is to eventually have a countywide rating in the 4 to 5 range.

In West Feliciana Parish, approximately 60 miles south of Adams County, leaders began implementing similar changes in 1987 and achieved a fire rating of 5 parish-wide in 1999, and this year went down to a 4. West Feliciana Parish Fire Chief James Wood said last weekend the parish celebrated the 30-year anniversary of beginning of the fire district, when at the time St. Francisville Fire Chief Jimmy Robinson proposed a unified fire district, as opposed to one for each town in the parish. That’s with exception to St. Francisville, which has its own mostly volunteer department with a 3 rating.

“The thought had been to create multiple fire districts,” Wood said. “But he thought with different communities having their own fire department would make them compete for the same dollars. He became the first parish fire chief.”

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Fire ratings are used by insurance agencies as a factor in setting insurance policy premiums.

The district started out as a class 10, which is the worst possible rating on a scale of 1 to 10, Before that point, people in West Feliciana 7 miles out of St. Francisville could not get insurance at all and just had to absorb the loss if their house burned down. Wood said that happened to one of his neighbors.

By the early 1990s, Wood said the department had achieved a 7 rating, went to a 5 in 1999 and in 2017 achieved a 4.

Wood said the bigger savings for residents was going from a 10 to a 7, and a 7 to a 5, than going from a 5 to a 4.

“The closer you get to the best rating, the less impressive the savings become,” Wood said. “But they are still there, and every little bit helps.”

Wood said when the department went from a 5 to a 4, some residents saved $50 to $100 per year, while others did not see any benefit, depending on insurance provider and age of the house.

While he did not have numbers for the businesses, Wood said where the impact truly was in going to a 4 was for the larger commercial properties that are more heavily insured.

Adams County residents within 5 road miles of Foster Mound, Lake Montrose and Liberty Road volunteer fire stations are likely to see savings, as the rating went from a 10 to a 9. Kingston residents going from a 9 to an 8 in 2016 received rebate checks ranging from $200 to $500 thanks to the improved rating.

County leaders hope building two new fire stations on the north and south sides of the county would lower ratings even more so residents could see additional savings.

Wood said fire departments are scored on three different areas — communications, water supply and operations.

Communications are primarily the dispatch, telecommunications equipment and emergency reporting. Operations include the department’s equipment, fire trucks, firefighter training and personnel.

Wood said West Feliciana typically fared well in communications and operations, but water supply lagged, which many Adams County leaders have said is also a concern.

To fix the water supply issue, Wood said the department approached 70 different landowners in the parish and obtained water-use agreements. They then built some roads and other improvements so that they could more easily shuttle the water.

Wood said the department also increased training, purchased equipment and built two new fire stations to increase the total to 11, but the largest increase — a good 10 points on an approximately 100-point scale — was the water supply.

Wood said most of that is through shuttling water from the ponds to structure fires. The department is capable of shuttling 1,000 gallons per minute, while in some areas the parish water system can supplement that with 500 gallons per minute.

The West Feliciana Fire District is operated mostly by volunteer firefighters, Wood said. Wood said the station has four full time employees in support roles.

The station also pays two part-time firefighters 24 hours per day during the weekdays. On weekends, they have two paid, part-time firefighters during the day, and one at night. The rest of the firefighters and emergency medical personnel are volunteers.

Wood said the department averages 11 firefighters on scene per structure fire.

The fire district is also mostly autonomous from the parish council. Wood said he answers to a board of commissioners, which sets the millage for the department.

Wood said the department operates off of 6 mills, or $1.45 million per year. Wood said the budget allows the department to operate and make the necessary capital improvements.

Natchez Fire Department has a budget of approximately $2.7 million, by comparison.

Going to a 3, Wood said, would require more than an average of 11 people showing up at structure fires. Wood said that could be done by increasing volunteers, but it would likely require more paid firefighters.

Wood said the rating is within their grasp, as they are only approximately three points away from scoring a 3 rating.

“If we cannot improve the participation we have, then we will need to bring additional personnel in, or create new incentives for volunteers to turn out and receive the training,” Wood said.

Adams County Supervisor David Carter, who has been vocal about improving fire ratings, said the county is not getting 11 volunteers to each fire, but he does not think it is a stretch to eventually get to that point.

“Our volunteers are showing up not only on county calls, but also within the city,” Carter said. “We have a dedicated, very active volunteer base. We just need to grow it and train it.”

Carter said it is up to leaders to get the volunteers the training they need.

“Our volunteers want to be trained,” Carter said. “We just need to do a better job utilizing the resources we have.”

Carter said the county needs to utilize and upgrade the training facility on the International Paper site, and also collaborate more with Natchez Fire Department on training volunteers.

“We have to become more ambitious in our networking efforts at the city and state level,” Carter said. “Our volunteers are really good, but they need more support, more training and at some point, we need to build new fire houses.”

Board of Supervisors President Mike Lazarus said he had always been told the county could not get to a 4 or a 5 rating due to much of the county having 2-inch lines, which are not thick enough to support a fire hydrant.

If shuttling water alone could be utilized in ratings, Lazarus said he thinks the volunteers could get 500 gallons per minute currently if the county made an investment in fire trucks.

Though Lazarus and Carter said they did not know if Adams County had as many water sources as West Feliciana Parish.

“That is encouraging if shuttling could get us there,” Lazarus said. “Our volunteers are practicing, they are shuttling and they are ready to take the test. They believe they can get us down to at least a 7.

“Fire protection is a big deal for me. It might cost a little more, but it will offset by saving people money on their insurance.”

Supervisor Ricky Gray said he has spoken to the mayor and the board of aldermen about the school board property at the old Washington School. Gray asked if the school board would give the city the Washington site since the city is giving the school board the bean field property.

Gray said the location would be an ideal spot to place one of the two fire stations. An area near Beau Pre has been a proposal for the fire station to the south.

But Gray said if the fire stations are built, the community has to get serious about upgrading its water lines in the county.

“It makes no sense to build a fire station if you cannot get the right pressure,” Gray said.

Down the road, Carter and Lazarus also said upgrading the water lines needed to be a topic of discussion.

Gray said the county volunteers deserve praise. Gray said he was for getting the volunteers trained.

“We have some of the best volunteers in the state,” Gray said. “I don’t know nobody who works and trains harder than the volunteers we have in Natchez. That is not their regular job, but they work hard at it.”

Lazarus said the fire stations would likely cost approximately $500,000 each, then the conversation turns to staffing and equipment. Lazarus said a volunteer-paid hybrid such as West Feliciana utilizes could be considered, but another option would be closing two city stations to move the firefighters into better facilities.

“We need to light a fire under (Fire Coordinator) Darryl Smith,” Lazarus said. “If we put in more work, I think we can get where we need to be.”

Smith could not be reached for comment.