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Commission chairman wants to explore combining county, city fire services

POSTED: January 20, 2008 5:04 a.m.
County commission Chairman Tom Oliver sparked discussion Monday with the county fire chief and other commissioners on merging Gainesville and Hall County fire departments.

"The challenge is we see an opportunity here to work with the city to make services a little more uniform to save some money ... and have quicker response times," Oliver said. "I think (the merger) will eliminate the duplication of services."

While Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell said the county and city fire departments are currently working well together, combining the departments would eliminate any overlap in coverage areas and could possibly decrease response times.

At present, Kimbrell said the county fire department provides emergency medical services to the entire county and provides fire services primarily to county areas outside Gainesville. However, Kimbrell said that on a daily basis, county fire responds to calls from within the city limits, and city fire often responds to calls outside the city.

"There used to be some confusion years ago before automatic aid went into effect, but now the closest station — whether it’s county or city — responds," Kimbrell said. "We’re making the system work, and I think it will continue to work well."

Kimbrell said there are several instances where county fire stations are located near property within city limits or where city fire stations are far from recently annexed areas that are geographically closer to county fire stations.

He cited the apartment complex on McEver Road near Browns Bridge Road as an example of a location within the city that is adjacent to a county fire station.

"In the case of an emergency, people don’t care if it’s city or fire services, they just want assistance," Kimbrell said.

The county fire chief recalled that the idea to merge county and city fire services was considered in 1995, and a study was done to define the pros and cons of a possible consolidation. Kimbrell said the study was non-conclusive, and the idea was laid to rest until this week.

"There may be some instances where you could close a station or relocate a station," Kimbrell said. "It would be a big change."

But Gainesville Mayor Myrtle Figueras said the city council has not discussed the merger, and the notion is a mere rumbling of ideas.

"For our people in Gainesville Fire Department, they have no idea. This has not been discussed at all," Figueras said.

Oliver said his goal is to initiate discussion in both the county and city governments regarding a merger of services that would create a duality rather than the elimination of a department.

"We’re not trying to displace anybody’s jobs or benefits," he said.

Oliver added that in light of the successful cooperation between the city and county on jail and sewer projects, merging the fire departments may be another opportunity for the two governments to consolidate their resources. He said that a study committee comprised of County Commissioner Deborah Mack and himself will delve into the details of a possible merger.

"It might be six to 12 to 24 months before we put this totally together," Oliver said. "But I think the time to start these discussions is now."

Gainesville City Manager Bryan Shuler said the city must first evaluate what the service and cost implications of a fire department merger would be before any action to consolidate will be taken. He added the city council has made no direction for the city staff to undertake a study at this time.

The issue of ISO (Insurance Services Office) ratings arose with discussion of a merger. The ISO rating is based upon various fire safety facets, including proximity to a fire station, and correlates with property owners’ insurance rates.

Shuler said without more investment in fire departments, the city’s ISO rating may not benefit from the merger. He added the city currently enjoys a class two ISO rating and was re-evaluated in December. The results from that evaluation have yet to be determined.

Gainesville City Councilman Danny Dunagan said the merger is something the city and county will have to look at very carefully. He said the idea has been tossed around during informal meetings between city and county officials, but the city was largely surprised by Oliver’s proposal to merge the fire departments.

"It may be something we need to look at, because in the future we might be building fire departments on top of fire departments," Dunagan said. "We want to make sure the citizens of Gainesville and Hall County are taken care of properly and as efficiently as we possibly can."

Both Oliver and city officials said real consideration for a fire services merger would require an in-depth and time-consuming study before decisions could be made.

Figueras said the city will continue to interview candidates for the city fire chief position now occupied by interim Gainesville Fire Chief Jon Canada, and has no designs on consolidating county and city fire services any time soon.

"If Mr. Oliver said that he would like to explore the idea, fine," Figueras said. "But it’s not on the table for the Gainesville City Council at this time."



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