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County laying groundwork to start fire department
Elena Murray, right, and engineer Chris Kelley of the Register Volunteer Fire Department run an annual hose test Friday evening. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

            County leaders are still working out the numbers, but a decision was made: Bulloch County will have its own fire department.

            Creating a county fire department plays into what the county has done for more than a year now, said County Manager Tom Couch. The county hired consultant Skip Starling, director of the National Fire Services Office, in October 2006 to work on lowering the county's ISO (Insurance Services Office) ratings, he said.

            But when the City of Statesboro offered a proposal earlier this year that would increase the amount the county pays for fire services, county leaders began discussing alternative choices.

            In 1985, the City of Statesboro and Bulloch County entered into an agreement that the city fire department would serve an area within a five-mile radius of the city limits in exchange for the county paying 25 percent of the city's fire budget.

            But recently, city leaders asked for more - they wanted the county to increase the percentage to 43 percent. The city refused to negotiate the terms, and the county officials felt the percentage was too high, especially since they had been exploring the idea of expanding and improving county fire services anyway, Couch said.

            During a meeting Dec. 4, Bulloch County Commissioners voted unanimously to end the agreement with Statesboro and assume responsibility for county fire fighting - including the area within a five-mile radius of the Statesboro city limits - themselves.

            While details including the cost and a construction plan must be ironed out, it's a done deal, Couch said.

            "Dinner's cooked, and we're setting the table right now," he said.

            Over the next two weeks budgetary details and other issues "will pretty much be worked out," he said.

            Couch, along with Bulloch County Commission Chairman Garrett Nevil, Bulloch County Public Safety Director Ted Wynn and Starling all met Thursday with reporters from the Statesboro Herald to discuss the decision.


City/County agreement

            County commissioners voted to end the agreement, but Statesboro City Manager George Wood said last week the agreement must be amended according to House Bill 489.

            Couch disagreed. There is a termination clause integrated into the 1985 agreement, he said. It allows "either party, with proper advance notice, to terminate the agreement," he said. "The amendments is simply this form to state how we are going to do things now, exercising our option to terminate the agreement. We fill out a form and send it to the state."

            Couch said Thursday he had not yet discussed the issue with Wood or other city officials.

            "That's our position and we feel secure in it," he said.

            Starling was already on board with the county, working towards lowering ISO ratings in the county areas. When Statesboro city officials made the proposal for Bulloch County to up the percentage of the city fire budget it paid, Couch asked Starling to "analyze the city proposal to see if we were getting our money's worth."

            The dollar amount the city was asking for was over $960,000.

            What Starling and the county leaders realized is, while there was no problem with the city's quality of service,  "What glared out at me is, we're sharing the city's staff ... there is not a staff dedicated to ... the county" areas, he said.

            "We're already paying $500,000 and we're sharing staff, and now they want $960,000?" he said.

            The Statesboro Fire Department does not have designated personnel to handle county fires instead of city fires, and has no tankers, but serves areas without hydrants, he said.

            Weighing the choices between spending close to $1 million and remain in the agreement with the city or forming a county fire department, the better deal seemed to be the new department, Couch said.

            "What they're asking for exceeds the service that was going to be provided," Couch said. "It doesn't cost that much to provide the service."

            But when he questioned Wood about the cost of serving the five-mile radius, "I never got an answer to the cost," he said.

            In fact, the city's refusal to negotiate and work out an agreeable deal was another catalyst that pushed the county's decision to go ahead with their own fire department. "They (city officials) haven't come up with a rational, compelling argument. They haven't translated cost into service effort."

            Even so, the city's proposal was not what started county leaders talking about changes to countywide fire services.

            "We didn't start this (because of the city's proposal)," Nevil said. "We were doing our own thing to improve services throughout the county."

            Couch said the city's refusal to negotiate did push the envelope. "We've had increasing frustration with their inflexibility. Collectively (commissioners and other county officials), we've had enough."

            "We've talked some, but there was only one way," Nevil said. "Their way or no way. There wasn't any negotiating."


ISO ratings and ideas

            Having a countywide fire department with a county fire chief will help him even further in his endeavors to lower ISO ratings across the county, Starling said.

            The county is already advertising for a county fire chief, so he can be on board when plans for the new county department are being made, he said.

            Starling has already begun working with Bulloch county's existing eight volunteer fire departments in training them on doing better paperwork, performing hose and pump tests and other procedures that will help lower ISO ratings.

            And when the county fire department gets underway, there will eventually be small substations in areas that currently have no fire service. Some of those may be unmanned, but will have equipment ready for volunteer firefighters if the need arises, he said.

            Starling also voiced concerns that the city's second substation on Fair Road has no EMS station nearby, as the main station on West Grady is adjacent to Bulloch EMS.

            The county's tentative plans to build two new substations within the five-mile radius outside Statesboro includes EMS bays, he said.

            "Ted (Wynn) has wanted to expand EMS to cut response time," he said. "We need to include EMS with fire services, as EMS goes to all structure fires."

            "There is no reason that, for less money, we couldn't have a superstar department with apparatus to better serve the county," he said.

            "And to assist the city (when needed)," Wynn said.

            "The city has called the five-mile radius area a burden," Starling said. The county's ending the agreement will remove the burden from the city, he said.

            Wynn said the county's decision will also place some control back into county hands.

            "That's close to  $1 million  they're asking, and we have no control over that department (the Statesboro Fire Department in covering county areas outside  the city limits)," he said. "I think  that grabbed the commissioners' eyes."

            Starling said the three new fire and EMS facilities will be manned by "two people, seven days a week." The current EMS station will have firefighters, and Couch said the other two stations will possibly be located near the Bulloch County Sheriff's Department and Central 911/Public safety, and possibly near the industrial park on the southern side of the city.

            The facilities will likely cost around $200,000 for a basic metal building and $400,000 for the headquarters," Starling said.

            Once a chief is hired, the next step is to "offer to meet with the city policy makers," he said. "We want the new chief involved. A fire chief has to be an orchestrator - needs to be in from the beginning."

            Wynn and the others all agreed they hope  the city will work with them on mutual aid and automatic aid agreements. Neither Wood nor Statesboro Fire Chief Dennis Merrifield commented Friday when a Statesboro Herald reporter asked about that issue.

            Couch said he hopes the city will work with the county regarding ending the 1985 agreement and forming its own fire department, as the county has always worked well with the city in the past.

            Bulloch County has worked cooperatively with the City of Statesboro regarding annexations and extending water and sewer infrastructure to county areas, and "I expected reciprocation," he said.

            Still expressing frustration at the city's position on its proposal, "I consider it a discourtesy to be stonewalled," he said. "Since I've been here, I think the county commission has been very accommodating to the city."

            "This is really an administration, not an equity issue," Starling said.

            "All we were told is we (the five-mile radius outside of city limits covered by Statesboro Fire Department) were a burden to them, and we said 'well, we can alleviate that burden,'" Nevil said. "We feel like we have made a responsible decision based upon  the information we have available."

            Couch said county leaders will continue to work out details regarding budgeting and other plans for the proposed county fire department.

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