07/19/11 — County officials to eye ways to help volunteer firefighters

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County officials to eye ways to help volunteer firefighters

By Steve Herring
Published in News on July 19, 2011 1:46 PM

Plans will be unveiled at tonight's meeting of the Wayne County Firemen's Association for a study that will examine not only the county's network of rural fire departments, but how the county interacts with them.

The meeting will be at 7 p.m. at the Belfast Volunteer Fire Station.

Wayne County Office of Emergency Management officials will talk about the assessment by Volunteer Fire Insurance Services, while offering assurances it is not a prelude to a county takeover.

The county has been setting aside money for the past two years for the $42,000 study, which is expected to take about six months to complete, said County Manager Lee Smith.

It is not an arbitrary decision by county commissioners -- current and former fire chiefs and the Firemen's Association have asked for the study, Smith said.

Wayne County's fire departments are in "pretty good shape," Smith said. However, they struggle with issues of attracting volunteers, keeping proper equipment and meeting training requirements, he said.

"I mean, they are held to some pretty stringent training, the people who volunteer to do fire service for you and I," Smith said. "It is tough.

"Looking at that on the behest of some folks from the Firemen's Association, some of the past and present fire chiefs, we actually went to VFIS and found out they do these studies nationwide where they come in and take a look. In fact, they have done some things for us in 911. They will come in and look at your strengths and weaknesses. What we want to do is to find ways to support fire departments better."

That includes the county looking at how it can possibly reallocate resources, he said.

"We also want to aid fire departments in developing relationships between each other," Smith said. "I think they really support each other, but I think that, like in other things, they can always be improved. People question a lot and some may be real, some may not, so let's identify issues as regards to sufficient response. Nighttime and weekends you get real good response. There are problems during the day in some areas of the county where it is tough. It is not the fault of the fire departments. They are volunteers and they are doing the best that they can.

"There are fire departments out there already that pay some people part-time when they have those really rough periods. You have three or four fire departments that have part-time paid people to be there on call to make sure they can get those first trucks out. Those things have already started and I commend those departments for doing that, but they do that for all of us. Let's find out how we can support them better."

Some of the smaller departments are struggling financially and in terms of manpower, he said.

"When you look at some of these smaller departments, they are in rural areas where you don't have a lot of tax base," Smith said. "They don't get the money these other departments get, and they struggle every day. They have to do a lot more fundraising. So instead of spending their time on the training and things they really want to do, they are busy out selling barbecue plates.

"That is a shame and that is not fair when you have a department over here that has a substantial tax base and you have one that is five miles away that is struggling to pay the light bill. There is something wrong with that picture I think this assessment has to look at that and how do we all partner together to make that better for them because we need the fire departments."

The volunteer departments form the backbone of fire protection in the county, Smith said

"When 911 gets hit and they call for fire, it is the county," he said. "The county is the one responsible. We contract with the fire departments so we need to make sure that we are giving the resources to these fire departments so that they can do the job they need to do.

"So let's identify the problems, if there are any. We may go in there and find out that everything is perfect. But like anything else, I am sure there will be things that can be identified. Then you can look at this as putting together some plan of action of improving, be it volunteers, equipment, training, process and procedures. We have got to look at all those things.'

Smith emphasized that the study is "absolutely" not a prelude to the county taking over the fire departments.

"After the county took over EMS there was always the fear out there the county would do that, but I can clearly tell you, and I think the board of commissioners will shout it from the mountain top, we have no intention of doing that," he said. "We think the fire departments do a great job.

"However, we need to make sure that as the contracting agent that we are doing what we are supposed to as a county, because when you dial 911 and your property is on fire we are responsible."

First and foremost is ensuring that the men and women answering the calls are safe, trained, have the things they need to fight the fire, he said.

The county also has to make sure that the 911 standards and procedures are correct, he said.

"When people point fingers you have to look at your own backyard first," Smith said. "We have to make sure we are doing what we are supposed to be doing. We are going to look at everything."