Volunteer fire departments are struggling with recruiting and Lowndes County may need to consider paid firefighters in at least some areas, Fire Coordinator Neal Austin told the board of supervisors Monday morning.
Fire departments all over the county are struggling, but District 4 and District 5 are especially hit hard and sometimes can’t get volunteer firefighters to answer calls at all, Austin said.
“We’re having issues all across the county with daytime response, especially,” he said. “Night is a little better, but people have got to work.”
The solution may be paying firefighters, he said.
“People just aren’t interested in volunteering the way they used to be,” he said. “(Emergency Management Director Cindy Lawrence) and I are toying with the idea of setting up a pilot program, starting across the river (west of the Tenn-Tom Waterway) because that’s where the tax base is growing the fastest and because we have some dangerous issues. We’re looking at changing our status from completely volunteer to some paid and some volunteers, like we have now.”
Austin said there had been 185 calls for the volunteer fire departments in District 5 since January, and on 61 of them there was no response.
He estimated that 55 to 60 percent of those calls were wrecks or medical calls.
Austin said part of the problem is that younger people aren’t interested in working on a volunteer basis.
“People see it’s a lot of time and work and there’s no pay so they find better things to do,” he said. “Our younger generation, unfortunately, is constantly working so we don’t see as many young volunteers. The older volunteers are beginning to hurt a lot more because they’re the ones constantly going out.”
District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks agreed.
“You just don’t have a lot of young folks,” he said. “You’ve got some middle-aged guys who can drive a truck, but the problem is you get the people to the fire and then they don’t know how to operate the truck.”
Austin said he personally responded to a call west of the river last week because there was no one else to do it.
“Friday I responded to an 18-wheeler fire in front of the (Magnolia Motor Speedway),” he said. “I live in District 3, and I drove their fire truck out there to get that fire.”
The problem is statewide and affects both volunteer and non-volunteer departments, he said.
Supervisors president Trip Hairston asked if the paid positions would be for working during daylight hours only.
“There are plenty of options,” Austin said. “You can do daylight-only seven days a week, or you could do one station per district. Then if you have a big fire, the station closest would respond and the other districts would augment.”
Hairston asked about the cost, and Austin said the potential increase in taxes to fund paid firefighters would be offset at least somewhat by the better fire ratings non-volunteer departments would bring.
“You would probably end up seeing anywhere from 10 percent to 40 percent decrease in fire insurance premiums,” Austin said.
There is no insurance rating benefit to running medical calls and wrecks, Austin said, and District 1 Supervisor Harry Sanders suggested eliminating medical calls altogether and focusing on fires only.
District 4 Supervisor Jeff Smith disagreed.
“It’s a needed service, especially in rural areas where you do not have medical facilities,” Smith said.
“The reason why we went that way is there’s a big delay from (Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle) responding to Caledonia, Crawford, Artesia,” Austin said. “You’re looking at a 25 to 30 minute response.”
Austin said he was ready to start developing a plan to reform fire protection as soon as the board asked him to.
“I’m here just basically to give you information,” he said. “We’re going to continue to do the best job we can do. … When I do it is up to y’all, but I can start today.”
“Yes, sir,” Brooks said, drawing laughter.
The supervisors directed Austin to develop a proposal for paid firefighters and to bring it back to the board.
Brian Jones is the local government reporter for Columbus and Lowndes County.
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