Congratulations for a job well done by the members of the Gilt Edge Fire Department on their response to Beaver Creek Lane.
The article in last week’s Leader made an important point regarding the need for full time firefighters to be stationed at all county departments. This has been an ongoing need for years and the issue has yet to be addressed.
In 2002, the Tipton County Fire Chiefs Association presented a plan to the county commission to address the needs of training and staffing at the county departments. The commission appointed a county fire committee to study county fire issues. In February 2003, the committee presented its recommendations to the county commission. Among the recommendations were that a county fire fee be established, the fee was to provide funding for all departments to hire some staffing, and establish minimum training standards county wide. The commission took the report under advisement.
In 2006, the county requested the University of Tennessee’s County Technical Advisory Service to do a study of county fire issues. CTAS Fire Consultant Kevin Laur finished this report in March 2007. It contained recommendations for a stepped approach to adding full time personnel, incentive compensation for volunteers, training requirements, and possible funding solutions. The report received limited distribution and no formal action was taken. In October 2006, the county hired a fire coordinator.
In November 2006 there was a tragic fire on Walk Hill Lane where two people lost their lives. A lot was said about the extended response time of the two volunteer fire departments that responded to this call. As a result, a three-department automatic aid response system for structure fires was put in place where at least one of the automatic aid departments would be a department with full time personnel.
The three-department response on structure fires has had many positive benefits. However, it still does not address the problem for response times by the primary department. If Gilt Edge has a weekday, daytime fire and Gilt Edge and Garland have no personnel available it is great to know that Covington will be responding. Unfortunately, the 15-20 minutes that it may take them to respond to Gilt Edge’s district allows an additional 10-15 minutes for the fire to grow. If victims are trapped by fire, what could have been a rescue by fire department personnel becomes something much more grim. Full-time staffing at the volunteer departments supplemented with volunteer personnel would make the three-department response a more effective program.
The recent fire on Pine Lane may have had a different outcome if there were career personnel at the Drummonds fire station ready to respond. A 4.5-mile response from Tate Road with career firefighters would have put trained personnel on that scene five minutes sooner. In this instance, five minutes may have resulted in a different outcome.
One positive change did occur in county fire services in 2014 when all of the county departments were re-rated by Insurance Services Office (ISO). All of the county departments and, particularly, the volunteer departments received an improvement in their ratings. This resulted in a substantial insurance premium savings for county residents. There are important facts to remember about the ISO rating. These ratings are used by insurance companies to determine property loss potential. They are a measure of a department’s ability to protect property. The ISO rating is not a measure of a fire department’s ability to save lives.
There has been one other positive change that has occurred, although not county-wide. The Town of Atoka has exhibited the type of vision and progress that is needed at the county level. The Town of Atoka realized the need for improved fire protection, formed their own fire department, and staffed it with full-time firefighters to protect the citizens of Atoka.
This realization is needed at the county level. Since 2006, the only real change at the county level has been to hire a Fire Coordinator and the addition of the three-department automatic aid response on structure fires. Nothing has been done to address the problem of lack of personnel and missed responses by the volunteer departments in Tipton County.
The three largest county municipalities - Atoka, Covington and Munford - are large enough to have the resources to provide full-time protection for their citizens. The three smaller municipalities – Brighton (and I include them here because their full-time firefighter numbers are limited), Garland and Gilt Edge - plus the three independently-chartered departments of Charleston, Quito-Drummonds and Three Star do not have the resources to provide full-time personnel. For this to occur, a funding mechanism must be developed at the county level.
We all need each other. The big three still need help from the smaller departments on large incidents in their cities. They need help when they leave their city limits to respond to county fires. The smaller departments need each other and the big three on a regular basis. Everyone would benefit if all departments had a minimal level of full-time staffing along with a trained reserve of volunteers.
It is time for Tipton County to find a way to fund adequate fire protection for its citizens. The county, the municipalities and the independently-chartered departments need to work together and provide full-time fire protection on a county-wide level. If we don’t, the next choking child and their family may not have a Happy New Year.
Steve Fletcher is the former fire chief and current mayor of Gilt Edge.