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County fire chief unveils strategic plan
Goals include improving volunteer training, adding more paid staff
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County Fire Chief Kevin O’Brien wants to revamp the county’s volunteer firefighter system to increase training and add more professional firefighters and fully-staffed fire stations as part of a multi-year strategic plan.

In a proposal to the Newton County Board of Commissioners Tuesday, O’Brien said the department has millions of dollars in needs for new equipment, vehicles and manpower, but he identified millions of dollars in possible cost savings that could fund improvements.

O’Brien said his No. 1 goal is to hire more full-time professional firefighters so more fire stations, whether existing volunteer stations or stations yet to be built, can be staffed, improving response times. The county currently has seven fire stations staffed by full-time firefighters and six volunteer stations.

He said the fire department has aging equipment and fire trucks that need to be replaced — which could cost $5.1 million over the next five years – but he said there could also be $5 million in savings over five years.

Replacing trucks and other vehicles with newer one would cut down significantly on repairs — which O’Brien said cost around $15,000 per month – and he said bringing the volunteer stations fully under the county fire department would help consolidate equipment not being used daily. Utility costs could also be reduced by consolidating operations of all stations, O’Brien said.

Volunteer overhaul
Bringing volunteer firefighters under the county fire department’s control — the county fire service is already responsible for maintenance of buildings — and increasing their training are among O’Brien’s goals to improve fire protection.

The county fire department recently hired seven employees, who started Monday, O’Brien said, bringing the department up to full staff at 75 employees. At the same time, the county has 93 volunteer firefighters, O’Brien said.

All of the county’s 75 paid firefighters are nationally certified to be firefighters (with more than 560 hours of training) and 51 are also certified to be emergency medical technicians. Firefighters are increasingly being relied on to be the first responders on medical calls, and more than half of all calls answered by fire departments are medical calls.

However, only eight of the volunteer firefighters are nationally certified and none have medical certifications, O’Brien said. The state has separate requirements for volunteer firefighters, O’Brien said, but only 28 of the volunteers are approved by the state to operate at an emergency scene, he said. In addition, volunteer firefighters aren’t required to get recertified like full-time firefighters (240 hours fire, 24 hours medical).

O’Brien has also offered internal training, but he’s had little participation from volunteer firefighters.

Because they are part-time, volunteers respond on about 21 percent of all calls for service directed to the county fire department, O’Brien said. The county fire department handled 6,500 calls in 2012 and is expecting to see more than 7,000 by the end of 2013.

On average, only one volunteer shows up to a call, O’Brien said. However, in order to get credit toward its ISO rating — a rating by a private company of an entity’s ability to respond to and fight fires, which is used by some insurance companies to determine premiums — a minimum of three volunteers must show up to a fire.

Newton County’s fire department improved its ISO to a Class 5/9 rating in 2012; the split rating reflects the ratings of people who do (5 rating) and don’t (9 rating) live within 1,000 feet and 5 road miles of a fire station.

O’Brien said he would also like to make all volunteer firefighters county-wide volunteers, so that they wouldn’t be paged only for fires in specific areas of the county.

While the chief provided data showing a need for more training, both he and county Chairman Keith Ellis said they wanted to make sure the volunteers feel appreciated. O’Brien said he’s working on an exhibit telling the history of volunteer fire service in the county. Volunteers provided the only fire service in Newton County until the professional service was started in 1971, O’Brien said.

“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. A lot of them volunteering now, their father and grandfather volunteered here,” O’Brien said.

“But what I did is I looked at our organization and realized there’s a better efficiency … operationally and economically, and (I want to) make sure we reinvest that money in the right ways, but still utilizing those people,” O’Brien said Tuesday.

Ellis said he would like to see public hearings held so that volunteer firefighters would be able to express their thoughts.

Future costs, savings
In 2013, the fire service had a budget of $3.8 million, but had to spend $4.1 million, O’Brien said, noting fuel costs, truck repairs, and building utilities and maintenance were among the largest non-personnel costs.

Newton County has a dedicated fire fund that can be used for some costs not covered by money from the general fund and dedicated fire property taxes. The amount of money in the fire fund was not immediately available Thursday.

O’Brien said the county’s spends about $15,000 a month maintaining and repairing an aging truck fleet, and he said the county will need to look at buying more trucks in the 2014-15 fiscal year. Over the next five years, the county could see $4.6 million in fire truck replacements.

In addition, at the top of the department’s wish list would be adding 30 more firefighters and other employees to bring the total staff up to 105, enough employees to staff three more fire stations with paid firefighters.

At least part of the costs could be offset by increased efficiency, including using what could be $7 million to $9 million in equipment and vehicles that are currently underutilized at volunteer stations, O’Brien said. Newer trucks would also reduce maintenance costs. O’Brien said the county could save around $5 million over five years.

O’Brien will continue to work on the strategic plan, including coming back with some equipment requests within the next 30 days.