The argument for change
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.