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Feeling the heat: Fire departments struggle with staffing levels
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Hall County firefighter Mark Brown checks supplies in a medical unit. Equipment and supplies are checked at the beginning of each day at every station. - photo by Tom Reed

Furloughs can burn when there are not enough firefighters to staff an engine.

After two years of a hiring freeze, mandatory furloughs and restrictions on overtime, Gainesville and Hall County’s administrators have been busy putting out budgetary fires, and have left the two fire departments’ staffing levels at a minimum.

Earlier this year, both got a little relief with a shift of new recruits headed to each department.

For Gainesville, it will cost. And for the county, it might not be enough.

A $1.92 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency allowed the city department to hire 18 new firefighters late last year. That will help the department meet national standards for fire engine staffing.

The National Fire Protection Association recommends that professional fire departments have four firefighters on each engine.

Currently, Gainesville fire trucks run with three firefighters. Hall County’s firefighters do with even fewer, normally only two on each engine.

But paying for that protection in Gainesville is another thing. The FEMA grant requires the city to gradually take over the cost of the new recruits over a five-year period.

City officials are considering an increase in the city’s millage rate of 0.26 mills to account for the added cost of salaries and contributions to employee benefit packages.

The proposed increase is expected to bring in $884,000 of extra revenue and cover those costs until fiscal year 2014, Gainesville’s Administrative Services Director Melody Marlowe said.

But that’s only if the city’s other revenues rebound.

“We’re going to have to smile when people say ugly things about the 0.26 (millage rate increase),” Councilwoman Myrtle Figueras said last week at a budget hearing for the fire department.

For Hall County, budget issues have meant mandatory furloughs and no overtime for county employees in 2008.

With 27 vacant positions and others on long-term sick leave, Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell said the department was short about 45 people until 12 new recruits were hired earlier this month.

The new county recruits won’t improve the department’s engine staffing levels for about three months. But even then, most engines likely will still have two staff members, Kimbrell said.

The county fire department needs at least 75 firefighters working at any given time to keep all the stations open, Kimbrell said. The department budgets for 100 firefighters for each of its shifts, with perhaps eight on vacation. Throw in the absences caused by monthly furloughs and training days for other firefighters and the department might run on about 85 people regularly, Kimbrell said.

The county’s current budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins in July shows about a $600,000 decrease in fire department spending.

The county’s new fire recruits will be paid using money saved from furloughs and unfilled vacancies over the last two years, and won’t require a tax increase, Kimbrell said.

“We’re limping by, but hopefully we haven’t affected the services to the citizens,” Kimbrell said. “... Until the economy turns around, I see us running short.”

The NFPA staffing levels are about firefighter safety, Canada said. But they also impact fire insurance rates and a department’s legal liabilities.

To keep the city’s fire insurance rating, at the city’s current growth rate, Canada said the city would need to have four firefighters on each engine to “take care of anything we have now and in the future.”

The Gainesville fire district has a rating from the Insurance Service Organization of 2, with 1 being the best and 10 being the worst.

An ISO rating determines the rate residents and businesses in each particular fire district pay for fire insurance.

Hall County has an ISO rating of 4 for residents living within five miles of a fire station and 1,000 feet of a fire hydrant. Other areas of the county have a 9 rating, because they are not accessible to fire hydrants.

Hall County was last evaluated by the Insurance Service Organization in 2005. Back then, there were three people on each engine, Kimbrell said.

If the ISO evaluation were to happen now, the current rating for the county may get worse, Kimbrell said. Another review isn’t likely, however, as ISO typically evaluates departments every 10 years.

“When ISO comes, they’re looking at just a snapshot of the department at that time, and an average over the last 24 months,” Kimbrell said. “... Now, if they came back, they would look at that snapshot today, plus over the last couple of years when we’ve had two people on the trucks, and that would play into the overall calculation of our ISO rating.”

Aside from insurance rates, the NFPA staffing standards also protect fire departments across the nation from liability in “worst-case scenarios,” Canada said.

If something goes wrong — a legal issue arises or a firefighter is injured or worse — the department will be held to the NFPA standards.

“That’s when you run into liabilities,” Kimbrell said. “...That would definitely play into how we’re judged.”

According to documents on the NFPA website, a number of fire departments across the country have had a difficult time meeting the standard because of a lack of local government funds.

Some have asked for the standard to be reduced, yet the NFPA’s Committee on Fire and Emergency Service Organization and Deployment has rejected the proposal on several occasions.

Kimbrell said most departments have about three firefighters on each engine.

And while Canada told the City Council that he doesn’t expect to meet all of NFPA standards, he said he does want the city department to meet the national engine staffing standard.

“Can we meet every single NFPA requirement? No,” Canada said. “Very few departments do, but most try to meet the staffing requirements.”

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