Volunteer firefighters feeling the heat

Volunteer firefighters in Suwannee County said they had to take a stand os somone would get hurt fighting a fire after the county commission raised fire assessments and then told each department to reduce their force to 13 volunteers and three trucks. From left are McAlpin Chief Paul Haas, O'Brien Chief Roberts Jones, McAlpin firefighter Charlie Anderson, and county volunteer fire corporation president Guy Cooper.

KAREN VOYLES/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, January 5, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 4, 2003 at 10:23 p.m.
McALPIN - Some volunteer firefighters in Suwannee County say they are being forced to quit volunteering because the county can't afford their free help.
County officials say they need to control the costs of having volunteers and want departments to make an effort to limit themselves.
Caught in between are property owners who are paying more this year in fire assessments.
"What we want to know is how the county can raise the assessments and cut fire service at the same time," said Paul Haas, chief of the McAlpin volunteer department and a part-time firefighter for the paid Suwannee County Fire Department.
Suwannee County Coordinator Johnny Wooley said the fire assessment went up from $25 to $35 per household in most of the county and remained at $50 per household within five miles of the Live Oak city limits.
"During the budget process, the Board of County Commissioners increased fire assessments, but that increase was not sufficient for what volunteers were requesting," Wooley said. "Also, we have a 150 percent increase in our workers' compensation insurance for firefighters that goes right back to September 11, when so many died on the job."
Finance officials in the clerk's office said the county paid $24,770 for workers' compensation insurance for volunteer firefighters between October 2001 and September 2002. This year's increase is expected to raise the premium to $37,155.
The only place not served by a volunteer department is the county seat of Live Oak, which employs 12 full-time firefighters and has an agreement to provide mutual aid to volunteer departments outside the city limits.
County records show fire crews are called out to an average of 1,000 to 1,200 fires a year outside of the city of Live Oak. Of those calls, 50 to 100 each year are for structure fires, usually homes, but occasionally a barn or chicken house.
Haas and O'Brien volunteer Fire Chief Robert Jones said their departments and others asked for increases because they have fallen so far behind in outfitting volunteers with equipment like self-contained breathing units.
"Our gear is outdated and it's just not safe anymore," Jones said.
"We are speaking out because if we just stay quiet and stay quiet, somebody's going to get hurt," Haas said.
Most of the gear used by the volunteers was cast off by other departments, according to the chiefs. Some has been burned through or is cracked. Previously the department would have fund-raisers to try to come up with money to repair or replace gear.
"Now with the higher assessments, people are wondering why we are still trying to raise money and they are not so willing to help," Haas said.
As an example, he cited his department's annual barbecue dinner, which raised about $5,000 a year ago and less than 10 percent of that amount this year.
"People don't understand that the money is not getting to the departments," Haas said.
Wooley said the dispute over money for the departments is a misunderstanding. He said the commission wants each department to help best utilize its resources.
"The board was looking at how we are delivering services and if we need a better way to deliver the services," Wooley said.
"In the past the board has looked at reducing the number of departments and expanding the paid department," he said. "At this point, there has been no clear direction from the board other than to ask everyone to try to deliver services and use revenue more effectively."
According to Wooley, commission Chairman Randy Hatch had asked that each department try to limit its membership to 10 to minimize workers' compensation insurance.
That request left some volunteers, like James Thompson, feeling unappreciated.
"I don't even pull a hose anymore," said Thompson, a retired farmer and longtime volunteer in McAlpin who recently resigned from the department. "We heard through the grapevine that this was going to happen, so I made it easy and told them I could give my gear to one of the younger guys."
Haas and Jones said that when word began circulating that the commissioners wanted volunteers to quit volunteering to limit each department to 10 firefighters, morale plummeted.
One of the options that also troubles volunteers is the possibility that some departments will be merged.
County officials began looking at how similar, neighboring counties handle firefighting duties. Columbia County has six departments and Madison has five compared with 13 in Suwannee County.
"There are some economies of scale that we may have to consider," Wooley said. "That's something the board may be looking at."
Karen Voyles can be reached at (352) 486-5058 or voylesk@ gvillesun.com.

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