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A look ahead: New fire stations bring long-term building project to end
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An ambitious building project that began in 1999 may be coming to a close this year for Hall County Fire Services, an agency that has seen tremendous growth in the new century and that may have its last planned fire station operational by the end of 2008.

And what began as a sales tax-funded plan to provide a station within five miles of all residential structures could also see the county's insurance rating improved as a result.

Hall County Fire Services Chief David Kimbrell said there's a chance that Fire Station No. 16 on Mount Vernon Road, the final new station planned, could be completed and online before 2009 if the present construction schedule holds up.

Currently, a relocated Station No. 2 on Hulsey Road and the new Station No. 15 on Autry Road are being built and are scheduled to open sometime around May, Kimbrell said.

Most of the new stations are two-bay, 5,600-square-foot structures costing a little more than $1.5 million each and taking, on average, about six months to build.

In addition to Station 16, a relocation of

Station No. 3 will move it west of its present location on Price Road to bring more residences on Lake Lanier into the five-mile coverage area.

Officials are still working to secure land for the final two projects.

"We really would like to have those ready to start as soon as we're finished with what we're working on now," Kimbrell said.

Once all the planned new stations and relocations are complete, officials are likely to ask the Insurance Services Organization to perform a new audit of the county's fire protection. The ISO, which sets fire protection scores for counties - which then affect homeowner insurance rates - last audited Hall County in 2005 and gave it a score of 4. A score of 1 is the best.

Kimbrell is hopeful that with the new stations in place, the ISO rating would be improved to a 3, which would likely have an effect on insurance premiums.

The decision on whether to continue to budget for new stations in some areas of the county still without five-mile coverage will be made by county officials after the current Special Purpose Local Option Tax expires, and is likely to be based largely on whether those heavily rural areas become developed in the future.

With new stations come new hires, and Hall County Fire Services now has 330 budgeted positions, with 15 new recruits in training to man Station 15. The department will ask Hall County to budget for another 15 or so firefighters for fiscal year 2009, which begins in July, if it appears Station 16 will be completed in time, Kimbrell said.

In 2007, the department answered 22,000 fire and medical calls, and the number is expected to go up for 2008.

Kimbrell said a major concern in 2008 will be how to effectively answer emergency rescue calls on Lake Lanier, which has sharply limited access due to a drought that has seen its banks recede by more than 20 feet.

"If we have a rescue today, we would have to take the equipment by land," Kimbrell said, noting that as of late last week there were no usable public boat ramps on the lake. "That's going to be a big thing this summer - how we're going to plan for that."

At the City of Gainesville Fire Department, Interim Fire Chief Jon Canada said more specialized training for firefighters is one goal for his department in 2008.

That includes more training for hazardous material, confined space rescue, trench rescue and high and low angle rescues, Canada said.

"We want to expand on their knowledge and skills and give the opportunity to other members of the department who are not certified in these areas to become certified," Canada said.

The interim chief also hopes to expand fire safety education programs in the city, and said an expanded automatic aid agreement with the county fire department is in the final stages of revision.

The agreement would expand the territory in which city units respond to county jurisdiction fires before county firefighters can reach them, and vice-versa.

Perhaps, most importantly for the city of Gainesville Fire Department, ISO will issue the results of an audit performed late in 2007. The result is expected in late February or early March.

"We're looking to maintain our Class 2 ISO rating," Canada said.

Both departments continue to do the daily duties, from equipment maintenance to inspections to education, that sometimes go overlooked by the public at large but play an essential role in public safety.

"The fire trucks out in the street are a lot of what we do, but there's a lot that goes on behind the scenes to support that," Kimbrell said.