Bulloch County commissioners this week authorized the county manager to bypass formal bidding requirements and proceed with buying three new fire engines and three 3,000-gallon water shuttle tanker trucks, expected to cost almost $2 million total, for the Bulloch County Fire Department.
These specialized vehicles are part of a strategy to staff three fire stations with shifts of one or two paid firefighters each and assign one fire engine and one shuttle tanker to each station. Meanwhile, county staff members are working with a consultant to identify about 40 additional “alternative water sources,” mostly ponds, to add to the current list of about 60 ponds designated for refilling tankers,
County Manager Tom Couch and Fire Chief Chris Ivey hope that these steps will lead to the Insurance Services Office, or ISO, upgrading the fire safety rating in most of the rural fire district to a more uniform “5,” which could reduce homeowners’ insurance rates. Currently, much of the county rural area carries the equivalent of a conditional 5/9 split rating.
“The payoff would be to get your ISO rates down, but to me, the better payoff is that we get a more effective Fire Department and better and quicker response. …,” Couch said in a phone interview. “It ups your game, and that’s what we’re trying to do. It’s public safety, fire safety, and then we also want the firefighters to be using good equipment, including rolling stock like engines and shuttle tankers, that isn’t going to break down and is going to be safe to use.”
That also includes breathing apparatus, turnout gear, axes, poles and hoses, he said. The county government is also seeking to upgrade some of this equipment with local funding and grants.
The county will keep some of its current fire trucks, but the fleet overall is in bad shape, with the three newest fire engines being eight to 20 years old, according to Couch. The county also has a larger network of fire stations and substations, with volunteer firefighters assigned to these. But the three stations to receive the new trucks will be central to the strategy for deploying a “combination” paid and volunteer department.
The ISO, a business organization that provides data to insurance companies, traditionally issues fire protection classifications on a scale of 10 to 1, with 10 being no recognized public fire protection and 1 being the best available.
Right now, the county’s ISO ratings create what Couch, speaking to the county commissioners Tuesday evening, called “a measles map,” dotted with small areas that qualify for the better “5” ratings. In the absence of hydrants, ponds identified as water sources can qualify a 1,000-foot radius for the better rating.
The new fire engines and tanker trucks driven by full-time firefighters could also extend the improved ratings to areas within five miles of a station, he noted. The paid personnel would be lead responders, driving the engine and the tanker of extra water to a fire while volunteer firefighters are called in, Couch said.
This strategy should replace the “measles map” with at least “a Venn diagram” of rural fire protection, he remarked in the interview. A Venn diagram is one of those charts with large, often overlapping circles.
The county has long collected a special added millage on property within five miles of Statesboro Fire Department stations and passed the revenue on to the city for response by its department in a “Statesboro Fire District” outside the city limits. In 2020 the commissioners added a similar fire service millage for the “Rural Fire District,” meaning the rest of the county.
In both of these districts, property owners now pay around 2 mills of tax, or two thousandths of the value of buildings and land assessed at 40% of market value, annually for improved fire protection. The Rural Fire District millage replaced an earlier fire fee that yielded less overall revenue.
The millage supplies a fire fund used to pay BCFD operational costs, including the salaries of full-time paid firefighters, as well as stipends that volunteer firefighters receive for each call, Couch said. Some accumulated cash in the fund could also be used toward the fire engine and tanker truck purchases, but the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or SPLOST, will probably be the main source, Couch said.
With the creation of the Rural Fire District millage, Ivey, county Public Safety Director Ted Wynn and Couch made it a goal to add 12 paid firefighters. But full-time firefighters are hard to find, and only about eight paid firefighters are working for the department currently, Couch said Wednesday.
“But we’re working really hard to get four more and we hope maybe we can get a federal grant to get six to 12 more, but that’s a few months, and maybe a year, down the road,” he said.
Bid procedures waived
Speaking to the county commissioners, Couch asked permission to proceed with purchases of the three fire engines and three tanker trucks without following the county’s usual bid procedures. These would have required creating and advertising specifications, obtaining sealed bids, evaluating the bids and presenting the winning bids to the commissioners for contract approval.
That could take about six months, and meanwhile some vendors of emergency vehicles such as fire trucks and ambulances are taking a year to deliver on orders, Couch said.
He suggested that alternative procedures could be justified under “sole-source purchase,” “cooperative agreement” or even “emergency purchase” provisions of the county purchasing policy.
For the fire engines, an identified likely manufacturer is HME Ahrens-Fox, but with the purchase likely to be arranged through the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association’s purchasing cooperative, Couch said. The cooperative has previously obtained bids on a range of equipment and this would involve a “cooperative agreement.”
The most recent delivery estimate is October, Couch said Tuesday.
For the water shuttles, Bulloch County officials have identified a tanker fabricator in Ocala, Fla., as a “sole source” but would obtain “quick quotes” from various vendors for the truck chassis, he said.
Couch cited rough cost estimates for each, adding up to less than $1.9 million, which he noted was less than $2.5 million he had cited at an earlier briefing.
“Once we get prices and delivery times and things like that … we would report back to you, formally or informally, what we’re doing, but we’re seeking this pre-approval to use a combination of these three purchasing methods allowed in our policies so that we can expedite what we need to do,” Couch told commissioners.
“We’ve kicked this can far enough,” said Chairman Roy Thompson. “I’m going to ask for pre-approval or a motion to proceed in looking into the fire equipment that we need.”
Commissioner Ray Mosley made the motion to move forward “to get the fire equipment that Bulloch County so desperately needs,” and was seconded by Commissioner Curt Deal. It passed unanimously.