The ar­gu­ment for change

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE -

For the past two years, Chief O’Brien has been craft­ing a strate­gic plan for his depart­ment to in­crease ef­fi­ciency and im­prove fire pro­tec­tion around the county, which is one of Ge­or­gia’s largest in terms of land mass. An im­por­tant part of the plan is over­haul­ing the vol­un­teer fire sys­tem.

O’Brien be­lieves the vol­un­teers re­main an im­por­tant part of the cur­rent fire pro­tec­tion net­work — he him­self was a New­ton County vol­un­teer in the early 90s — but he’s mov­ing the county to­ward a com­pletely full-time sys­tem, a change he sees as in­evitable and for the best.


County-wide, O’Brien said vol­un­teers only re­spond on 21 per­cent of calls in New­ton County. While some vol­un­teer sta­tions have an 85 per­cent re­sponse rate, oth­ers al­most never re­spond.

O’Brien be­lieves that’s not a high enough re­sponse to jus­tify the amount of money the county is in­vest­ing in vol­un­teers — not through pay, but through the fire trucks and other equip­ment be­ing housed at the county’s six vol­un­teer sta­tions.

O’Brien pre­vi­ously told the New­ton County Board of Com­mis­sion­ers in De­cem­ber he could save around $5 mil­lion over the next five years by bet­ter uti­liz­ing those vol­un­teer trucks and equip­ment.

At the county’s seven ca­reer sta­tions, O’Brien has nine first-line trucks — the top trucks in the best shape. He has

three re­serve trucks as back­ups. How­ever, there are 11 vol­un­teer trucks in to­tal, and O’Brien said he feels com­fort­able us­ing at least nine of the trucks as first-line or re­serve trucks.

“Are they top of the line? No. But while most have some age, they have very lit­tle wear and tear. We have a 1991 truck that only has 12,000 miles. It’s still a very good, use­able truck,” he said.

O’Brien said pre­vi­ously those equip­ment sav­ings could be plowed back into per­son­nel, as his top goal is to add around 30 more fire­fight­ers, bring­ing the to­tal staff up to 105 em­ploy­ees, and fully staff three more fire sta­tions with ca­reer fire­fight­ers (ca­reer is the pre­ferred term for full-time, paid fire­fight­ers as op­posed to the word pro­fes­sional). “Vol­un­teers are not free,” O’Brien said in an email. “We in­vest a great deal of money in their train­ing, their equip­ment, work­ers comp cov­er­age, etc. We must make sure we in­vest our tax dol­lars wisely and en­sure we get the best re­turn for our money on this in­vest­ment,” he said. “We are do­ing this through en­sur­ing they are prop­erly trained to re­spond and per­form safely, they are qual­i­fied to serve the cit­i­zens and they are com­pe­tent to per­form the du­ties of a fire­fighter.”

The county also pays all of the util­ity costs and build­ing main­te­nance cost for the vol­un­teer fire sta­tions, O’Brien said.

A bet­ter ISO

Three ex­tra ca­reer sta­tions would also help O’Brien achieve his goal of low­er­ing the county’s ISO rat­ing – a rat­ing de­ter­mined by a pri­vate com­pany that mea­sures a fire depart­ment’s abil­ity to re­spond to and fight fires. The ISO rat­ing is used by some in­sur­ance com­pa­nies to de­ter­mine pre­mi­ums, which means a bet­ter rat­ing can save res­i­dents and businesses money.

How­ever, the ISO rat­ing could also be im­proved in other ways. The ISO is based on sev­eral fac­tors, some of which have noth­ing to do with vol­un­teers; for ex­am­ple, the county’s lack of wa­ter sup­ply in the ru­ral parts of the county is the big­gest fac­tor pre­vent­ing it from hav­ing a bet­ter rat­ing.

How­ever, re­sponse time, the num­ber of fire­fight­ers work­ing at a fire scene and the amount of train­ing re­ceived by fire­fight­ers all play a part in the rat­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to the ISO stan­dards, a struc­ture fire should have around 20 fire­fight­ers on scene to fight it. The num­ber is high, but O’Brien ex­plained it’s be­cause mul­ti­ple per­son­nel are needed to work var­i­ous pieces of equip­ment and the fire­fight­ers who have to ac­tu­ally fight the fire are sup­posed to fre­quently ro­tate for safety rea­sons. In ad­di­tion, there is sup­posed to be a com­mand of­fi­cer and safety of­fi­cer on the scene, in ad­di­tion to oth­ers.

New­ton County only runs about 12-14 ca­reer fire­fight­ers on a house fire, and O’Brien said in the seven years he’s worked full-time for New­ton County — he pre­vi­ously worked for DeKalb County — he said he’s never seen more than three to four vol­un­teers on an in­ci­dent.

“I’m not knock­ing any­one. With their sched­ules and per­sonal lives, it is the way it is. A cou­ple sta­tions I know will show up on ev­ery call, but other sta­tions I may go months with­out see­ing (on a scene),” O’Brien said.


“There were no re­quire­ments for vol­un­teers,” O’Brien said. There are mul­ti­ple level of vol­un­teer fire­fight­ers in Ge­or­gia (see the box ti­tled “How to be­come a vol­un­teer”), but O’Brien was con­cerned that there was no true over­sight over the county’s vol­un­teers.

The vol­un­teer fire de­part­ments con­ducted weekly train­ing, ev­ery Tues­day, but O’Brien said the train­ing wasn’t al­ways rel­e­vant to the vol­un­teer’s role or mod­ern fire­fight­ing is­sues.

“(As fire chief), I have a lit­tle heart­burn over the lack of over­sight over the vol­un­teer side. If people were reg­is­tered 20 years ago, the changes in tech­nol­ogy and fire ser­vice has been as­tro­nom­i­cal,” he said. “I had heart­burn and sleep­less nights that the per­son out there fight­ing fires is ex­pected to do things they haven’t been trained on. “That’s why I felt we needed to put out a stan­dard.” Ca­reer fire­fight­ers have to com­plete 120 hours of an­nual train­ing, O’Brien said; he thought that to­tal was too in­tense for vol­un­teers, so he im­ple­mented twice-a-month train­ing days, also on Tues­day nights, for about 3 hours at the county fire head­quar­ters.

He also re­quired vol­un­teers to spend 12 hours at ca­reer sta­tions ev­ery quar­ter; in the event of a fire, the vol­un­teer would ride with the ca­reer fire­fight­ers and help on any emer­gency calls.

He also re­quired vol­un­teers who drive fire trucks to prove they had the skills nec­es­sary to drive a truck. Truck driv­ers had to com­plete a list of tasks in a des­ig­nated book.

O’Brien said Mon­day there six or seven vol­un­teers who had com­pleted their task books so far, in­clud­ing a few in the past cou­ple of days. He said his ma­jor con­cern is that driv­ing fire trucks is in­her­ently dan­ger­ous, and it’s the county who owns the fire trucks and cov­ers the trucks’ in­sur­ance.

“In the fire ser­vice, we have a lot of ac­ci­dents. When you re­spond to 7,100 calls a year, you get in ac­ci­dents. And when you get in an ac­ci­dent with a fire truck, it’s very dan­ger­ous, and you usu­ally do have mul­ti­ple thou­sands of dol­lars in dam­age and in­juries, if not fa­tal­i­ties,” O’Brien said.

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