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Posted: May 24, 2014 10:00 p.m.

County plans to professionally staff volunteer fire stations

Newton County’s growing population is leading to more fire and medical emergency calls, and Newton County Fire Chief Kevin O’Brien wants to more effectively use the county’s multiple remaining volunteer fire stations in the public safety fight.

O’Brien is going to ask officials at each volunteer fire station — each volunteer station has its own independent board of directors — for permission for the county to begin staffing the volunteer stations with full-time, paid county firefighters.

The Newton County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to approve the proposed contract O’Brien will be presenting to the volunteer fire stations’ boards; O’Brien told the Board of Commissioners the agreements had not been updated since 1987.

Improving, replacing volunteers

Overhauling the volunteer fire service, and eventually converting all volunteers to career firefighters, has been a goal of O’Brien’s since he took over as chief.

O’Brien installed a credentialing system for volunteers after he became chief, and he said Tuesday that some volunteers have met the requirements and some have not.

The goal of the program is to raise volunteers’ training to meet career firefighters’ levels, O’Brien said; the training has worked in some cases as O’Brien said Newton County Fire Services has hired four volunteers during its last two recruiting cycles.

According to a May 15 memo, O’Brien said there are seven career fire stations that are staffed 24/7 and six volunteer fire stations. The county has 75 career firefighters and 20 volunteers, according to the memo.
In addition, four volunteers, with a fifth following in their footsteps, have been credentialed to be able to drive and operate fire trucks, O’Brien said. Prior to the credentialing, volunteers operating the trucks and apparatus was a liability for the county, O’Brien said.

However, given that the fire department handled 7,100 calls in 2013, O’Brien said the county has to look at staffing fire stations to increase its response times.

He said professionally staffing three more stations would improve the county’s fire insurance rating, lowering some residents’ costs.

The main change in the contract O’Brien presented Tuesday – the rewriting of which was officially handled by the county attorney’s office – was to allow the county’s professional firefighters to freely use the volunteer fire stations.

O’Brien said the stations are not owned by the county; most of them are owned by independent limited liability companies set up to oversee the station, though one is owned by a resident and one is owned by a church. Though they don’t own the stations, the county provides all of the fire equipment and pays all maintenance and operation costs.

In a previous presentation to the Board of Commissioners, O’Brien said he hoped that better utilization of equipment at volunteer fire stations could save the county some money and allow it to hire more full-time firefighters.

In December, O’Brien said the goal was to improve fire service, while still recognizing the service volunteers have given over the years.

“The whole mission when I met with (County Manager John) Middleton about this a year and a half ago was not just to pull the rug out from underneath somebody; these men and women have given a lot of their time,” O’Brien said in December. “A lot of them volunteering now, their father and grandfather volunteered here.”

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