Plans to beef up the Bulloch County Fire Department include the immediate hiring of three full-time firefighters, but a funding plan and other supporting factors must be decided on, said Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch.
The department currently operates mainly using volunteer firefighters.
On Tuesday, the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners held a workshop with Bulloch County Fire Chief Christopher Ivey, Bulloch County Public Safety Director Ted Wynn, several volunteer firefighters and other officials to discuss a county fire department in need of improvement.
Following a national trend, the county is experiencing a shortfall of volunteer firefighters. The county also faces water availability issues and the need to lower Insurance Service Office, or ISO, ratings.
Couch said Wednesday that the workshop developed after Ivey and several volunteer firefighters expressed concerns six months ago about the county fire services. County commissioners have also been fielding calls from citizens about ISO ratings, he said.
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the highest rating, Bulloch County stands at 5/9, depending on the area. Goals for the county include maintaining and improving ISO ratings.
With declining numbers of volunteers due to work and family commitments, morale is low due to perceived lack of support, he said.
With the hope of hiring 18 full-time paid firefighters over the next five years, Ivey has already begun the hiring process for three.
Commissioners and firefighters are also concerned with working with the city of Statesboro regarding the “Statesboro Fire District,” a five-mile radius outside the city limits. The ISO rating for the unincorporated fire district is 8b, which is for districts that provide above-grade fire protection services and fire alarm facilities but do not have water supplies sufficient for higher ISO ratings.
Couch outlined needs in a Powerpoint presentation and stated that “nearly all private water systems outside Statesboro are useless for fire suppression.” The county must make plans for alternative water sources, which may include the purchase of three tankers.
Funding and goals
With all the needs identified, now the county must decide how to fund the fire department, Couch said.
Currently, “operating and capital financial support are deficient to meet these issues without a new funding model,” he said. A budget of $2 million is possible, and the answer may be a millage rate hike of 2.5 mils.
Ivey and county leaders also will be “aggressively pursuing” grants, he said.
The issue is still in the planning and discussion stages, but county leaders and firefighters continue to “meet and brainstorm” issues regarding county fire needs.
Goals established already include staffing full-time firefighters and support personnel with manned deployment at three stations in the Portal, Register and Bay districts; developing strategies for alternative water supplies that should lead to lower ISO ratings; and providing adequate ongoing operating and capital (financial) support.
Also, county goals include applying “regulatory and policy changes with higher standards for fire suppression, private water system infrastructure, and development review and other forms of mandated risk reduction,” Couch said in his presentation.
Another goal is to “improve communications between the leadership of the City of Statesboro and the county to improve fire issues in the Statesboro Fire Department,” he said.
“We have a lot of logistics to flesh out,” he said. “The problem is real, and (commissioners) recognize the problem.”
Continued discussions are expected as Bulloch County commissioners, volunteer firefighters and other public safety officials work together for solutions, Couch said. No action was taken during Tuesday’s meeting.
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.