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Hall County seeks to plug fire gap

Fire station shortage raises some homeowners' insurance rates

POSTED: July 22, 2012 12:08 a.m.

These days, it’s not uncommon to hear how government action costs taxpayers money.

But Hall County resident Wayne Anderson is facing the costs of doubled home insurance premiums — from $1,100 to $2,300 annually — thanks to something the government chose not to do.

In recent months, Hall County residents have approached local government officials about the state of fire and emergency medical services with concerns involving both their pocketbooks and public safety.

Hall County officials say they are now working to address these concerns and fix the problems.

Like many government services in Hall County and nationwide, fire services has suffered as a result of the economic downturn, with plans to expand put on hold.

Anderson is one of dozens of residents suffering from high fire insurance costs because of altered and delayed efforts to improve public safety in Hall County.

Economic struggles have been blamed for the delay.

In Anderson’s case, the fire station that was originally assigned to his home was relocated farther away, but the planned replacement for it was never built.

As a result, Anderson’s home is now considered, by insurance standards, too far from a fire station. That led to higher premiums.

County officials confirm that residents who live near Anderson are facing similar increases.

But it’s not just the money that concerns Anderson. He worries what would happen if there were a fire or medical emergency near his home.

“The major issue, the bigger problem, is that you don’t have fire protection,” he said. “That’s the issue: the safety and protection of the citizens of Hall County.”

In 2004, voters approved the fourth special local option sales tax that, among other projects, would bring the construction of three fire stations. Two of those (stations 2 and 3) would take existing stations and move them elsewhere. The third would create a new station.

The three stations were to be brought online together. To do otherwise would mean that some residents would lose their proximity to an operational fire station, a basis for insurance costs.

Insurance companies use a rating system based on a system by Insurance Service Office, usually called ISO. Home and regions with better fire protection received a lower ISO score; 1 is the best. Meanwhile, those with poor protection get higher scores; the worst is 10, which is considered a lack of fire protection.

Homes that are beyond a five-mile driving distance from a fire station get an automatic 10 rating.

At first on schedule, Hall County completed the relocation of Station 2, which went to Clermont.

But when signs of economic collapse began to emerge five years, Hall County officials realized they could no longer afford to relocate Station 3 and build a new one.

The cost of building the fire stations was not the only concern. One of the stations would have required additional money in annual operating costs and new firefighters’ salaries. That came at a time when the county was beginning to implement furloughs, lay off employees and begin hiring freezes.

The decision left Station 3, Hall County’s oldest, in operation.

Fire Station 3, on Short Road, was built in the early 1970s. When built, it was considered a “temporary structure,” according to Hall Fire Chief David Kimbrell.

The metal building is small and cozy. With only one bathroom, firefighters say female employees aren’t posted at the station because of privacy concerns.

The station is the only one without backup power capabilities.

While nearly everything else is functional, fire equipment has outgrown the station’s bay. The fire truck and ambulance barely fit through the doors when coming and going. Drivers have to proceed slowly when called to the scene of emergencies or risk scraping the doors.

On a few occasions, firefighters at the station say the radio antennas have broken off the fire truck when leaving the station.

Other areas of the county that were never within the five-mile radius were supposed to get lower premiums with the new stations.

Terry Kuehn, a former volunteer firefighter, lives off Cool Springs Drive, where he has always had a class 10 rating. Since county officials first delayed the move, Kuehn has been pushing for commissioners to follow through with plans to give him better protection.

“My primary concern is for response times,” said Kuehn, who is also out of the five-mile driving distance range. “We’re at the farthest point for fire services and medical calls.”

Just in the last year, Kuehn said, there were three homes near his that were completely lost to fire. With closer stations, Kuehn said some of them might have been saved.

“It’s obvious that response times for fire services are not adequate,” he said. “Public safety should be a major concern.”

In reality, the public safety aspect of a five-mile radius is a little less clear cut than how it’s treated with insurance premiums, Kimbrell said.

“Five miles in rural Hall County roads are different from five miles in downtown Atlanta,” Kimbrell said. “It’s a little misleading.”

But in emergency situations when minutes or even seconds county, Kimbrell agrees that distance from a fire station matters.

Earlier this month, the Hall County Board of Commissioners instructed staff to begin assessing the costs of buying land and building the fire stations originally planned years ago.

Kimbrell said the process is started, but it could be a while until those stations are operational. He estimates it takes about a year for construction to be completed.

“That’s from when we pull a trigger,” he said. “We’re just aiming right now.”

Commissioner Scott Gibbs said the county is aiming to have the stations operations by Dec. 2013.

“We’re going to try to resolve this problem just as fast as we can,” he said.


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