After months of planning, Hall County is poised to move on two new fire stations in North Hall.
“We have offers out to property owners. We’ve identified locations, and hopefully we will have fire stations in the next 12 to 14 months,” District 3 Commissioner Scott Gibbs said last week.
The exact site of the properties are confidential until they are under contract, he said.
A new station will be built somewhere north of Mount Vernon Road, and Station 3 on Short Road off Price Road will be relocated on Mount Vernon. That station, constructed in 1973, was meant to be temporary.
Funding for those stations and one other that has already been built was approved in a special purpose local option sales tax vote in 2004.
Station 2 on Brookton-Lula Road was relocated to a new building on Hulsey Road in Clermont in 2008.
The other two stations were supposed to follow shortly but plans were put on hold. That led insurance rates to go up for some residents because they live too far from a fire station.
“It was a rightful concern when the relocation to Clermont caused a very large gap in my district,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs said the commission has been working diligently since this summer — “as fast as we’re allowed” — with Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell to identify locations for the stations.
“We recommend the locations based on coverage area and call volume, then we locate tracts of land and the commission approves where we would like to build,” Kimbrell said.
He said that “there have not necessarily been any changes in response delays” because of the distance to stations.
But residents of the area have expressed concern. Terry Kuehn lives in North Hall and was a volunteer firefighter for 25 years.
He said he knows the importance of response time, especially for ambulances.
“The fact is that 80 to 90 percent of calls in fire service are ambulance calls — that obviously is very important,” Kuehn said. “I have some more mature people that live in my neighborhood, and to us, that’s the No. 1 concern.”
Building the fire stations became an urgent issue for North Hall residents when insurance assessments caused a significant spike in rates.
Insurance companies use a rating system based on a system by Insurance Service Office, usually called ISO. Homes with better fire protection receive a lower ISO score; 1 is the best. Meanwhile, those with poorer protection get higher scores; the worst is 10, which is considered a lack of fire protection.
The affected North Hall neighborhoods are in an area where the rating was a 4 — that is, until Station 2 was relocated and the planned Station 3 relocation was never built.
Gibbs said he understands why residents have been upset.
“When you buy in the neighborhood and it’s a class 9, you knew there was not a fire station there,” he said. “But when you buy it and it’s a class 4, I don’t think that’s fair.”
He said that the station on Mount Vernon will bring those North Hall neighborhoods back into a class 4 rating. Some residents have been confused about the five-mile rule; homes that are beyond a five-mile driving distance from a fire station get an automatic 10 rating.
“The rate is determined by actual road miles between the fire station and the home,” Gibbs said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re ‘in that circle,’” he said, referring to a five-mile radius around a station.
Gibbs said the delay in construction was not lack of funds, but lack of initiative.
“Budgets have never been a factor; there was money sitting in supply for these two stations,” he said. “It just seemed they had fallen by the wayside. That new station got built in Clermont, then it never was followed through the offer for the one off of Mount Vernon Road.”
Although the money to build the station comes from SPLOST, funding fire station operations comes from a separate fire millage tax, not from the general fund.
The budget for the general fund has been tight for the past three to four years, Gibbs said.
“It’s either pay the tax or pay a higher rate on your insurance, so it’s actually cheaper to have fire service than to pay it in insurance,” Gibbs said.
The spiked premiums — from about $900 to $2,200 — got the ball rolling.
“When the insurance companies started picking up that they were farther than the five miles away, that’s what got our attention. That’s when it came to my attention that we have got to get this fire station built,” he said.
After months of planning, Gibbs said residents should be reassured that the issue is being addressed.
“I think what they wanted was a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
Eventually, Gibbs said, all of Mount Vernon will be in a safe range once the second planned station is built. And the planned third station will add fire coverage north of that area.