SUWANNEE DEMOCRAT

Volunteer firefighters meet with county

Susan K. Lamb, Democrat Managing Editor

A recent meeting of the Suwannee County volunteer firefighters network, consisting of chiefs and administrative staff, addressed many areas of conflict, rumors and changes that must be made. These items were addressed by Suwannee County Coordinator Johnny Wooley.

Wooley, who gave answers to questions that plague the volunteer firefighters in the county, made it clear from the beginning - he and his staff are there to help, not hinder, and are not hired to tell volunteers how to spend their departments' finances or do their work. " didn't think it was my responsibility to come out here and tell you how to spend your money," Wooley told the volunteer chiefs as he cited why he doesn't attend their network meetings. However, Wooley emphasized it is Suwannee County Fire Coordinator Johnny Howard's job to work with the volunteers and career county firefighters, and share information from the county and see that all career and volunteer firefighters are trained properly.

Here's a list of the county concern/changes and firefighter concerns addressed at the meeting:

Changes encouraged and/or considered by the county:

1. Closing some stations and merging some to make the fire fighting areas more evenly covered

2. County handling finances for each department (paying bills, etc.)

3. Pooling county allotted money each year to get better bargains in equipment and other purchases

4. Working more closely with the county fire coordinator

5. Not allowing anyone to have a red light for their personal vehicles due to state law which could lead to a personal law suit against the firefighter (which would not be covered by the county) and loss of his/her personal vehicle insurance with no coverage for an accident due to the firefighter being enroute to a county fire call (State Statute 316.398)

6. Purging rolls of fire department volunteers who are insured by the county (no limit of numbers that can be left on) of those who cannot fight fires and are not properly trained

7. Possibly obtaining land for strategically placed fire stations in some areas

8. Turning in worn out state forestry and other equipment that doesn't work or run

9. Municipal Service Unit (MSBU)

10. 160-hour fire fighting course required for all who fight fires in the county

11. Signing of yearly contracts by departments

Some problems stated by network chiefs at the meeting:

1. Faulty or no personal safety equipment for the volunteers

2. Slowness on the part of the county when handling departments' bookkeeping

3. Closing of stations

4. Inability to find or write grants to help individual departments

5.160-hour firefighters training course county is requiring

6. Pine forests not being assessed on a county level to recover costs for fire fighting

7. Lack of concern/appreciation on county's part for work the volunteers do

8. Yearly budgeted money not being received by departments

9. County employees with new vehicles and firefighters with little or no equipment when they are putting their lives on the line to save others for no pay

10. Misunderstanding that fire departments could only have three trucks, 10 volunteers on the rolls

11. How Taylorville equipment was distributed

"We need your help, not your resistance," Wooley told the group of about 25 volunteers gathered for the monthly meeting.

Rumors are all over the county, Wooley said, causing conflict and confusion regarding the fire service. Among those rumors, Wooley said, is that various departments will be closed and all departments must reduce their rolls to 10 volunteers.

He confirmed that Taylorville Volunteer Fire Department has closed, the equipment returned to the county and all the department's money also returned to the county. There may be other stations that do close, however, since the county is requiring each station to purge the rolls of volunteers who are not properly trained and/or cannot fight a fire. This decision came about earlier due to an increase in workman's compensation insurance under which all volunteers on each department's roll are covered by the county at hundreds of dollars each.

Wooley added there is no magic number of volunteers who can be on a department's rolls, but those on it, as firefighters must be qualified to fight fires.

The county is also contemplating reducing or merging stations to better cover the county rather than having the 13 it began the year with. There are now 12 stations, including Mitchell Road and Ranchettes, which were brought on within the last two years after much debate on the board regarding whether that was a good move. Some commissioners at that time felt the board could never deny any group the right to start up a volunteer fire department. The county would then add that department to its budget at a $5,000 budget item per year, the amount it pays to each volunteer department each year to assist with fire fighting service.

Wooley encouraged volunteers to contact their coordinator, Johnny Howard, first rather than their county commissioner. He said once the budget is set each year, volunteers have to live with that budget until the next budget year and that won't change. '"I'm here to tell you, you can't solve financial problems once taxes levied," Wooley said. "That's it for a year!" Wooley said if volunteers are unhappy with dealing with the county and want to run their own fire district, they can do so. However, he added, it is very expensive, time consuming and that district would be required to hire people, tax the people, hire a lawyer, tax consultant and meet other obligations. This can be only with a Legislative vote, Wooley said.

Wooley said the county has a problem with its current fire ordinance, but the cost to fix it is high, and the county currently doesn't have that money to spend.

"Divide and conquer - if I can divide you by getting you to fight among yourselves, I can conquer you," Wooley said. And, he added, that is exactly the problem within the fire network, fighting among the various departments.

During the meeting various chiefs expressed disbelief that some of the departments had gotten grants. Some suggested their departments had working people in them, and they didn't have time to spend writing grants to get the money. Others complained that no one told them about the grants. Bill Walters, Wellborn Volunteer Fire Department, said the grants are listed on the Internet fire sites and available to anyone who takes the time to look for them. That's how his department found the grant they recently received from the state. Wooley pointed out that many of these grants, including the ones recently received, are set up in a way that does not allow the county to get involved with them and only the volunteers can write them.

Falmouth, Wellborn and Branford departments have received about $200,000 total together in grants in the last year due to their efforts in finding and writing grant applications.

Another issue is turning in worn out equipment. Wooley said the state forestry division is asking that all non-operational equipment they donated be returned to be disposed of. Wooley said he's learned there is a resistance to doing this among the fire departments, but there is no choice in the matter. The equipment belongs to the state, and they want it back. The county also wants all non-operational equipment turned in to the county since they are paying insurance on it and that could be a savings. It also gives the county a better idea of what equipment is needed.

Wooley noted that a 160-hour fire fighting course is now being required for volunteer firefighters. Some say they are not going to comply. "Some of you say you're not going to the 160-hour training," Wooley noted. "You don't have to, but if you don't, you won't fight fires," he told the group. "You can still be a volunteer, though." Although all volunteers are covered under workman's compensation, firefighters are covered at a higher amount, Wooley said.

Wooley also suggested that volunteers who take their case to the newspaper will create talk, but not solve problems. Wooley was referring to a recent article in a Gainesville paper. He said it's not budget time and nothing can be changed until it is. "It's much more effective for each of you to pick out 15 well-respected people in your community and have those people call county commissioners and tell them they want fire assessments raised!" He added that if firefighters still don't like the way things are going, they can run for election or vote out those they feel aren't doing a good job. Wooley added that if the fire coordinator isn't doing a good job, Wooley is his boss, tell him. If Wooley is not doing a good job, tell the commissioners, but first try to work through the chain of command to solve problems, he said.

Wooley said those who haven't signed their yearly contract with the county won't get their 2003 budgeted money until that contract is signed. At least three departments still had not turned in those contracts last week, according to the clerk's office. Some who had returned them reported they were getting their checks. Other checks were being mailed at the time of the meeting, according to the clerk's office. Why had those checks been held? Lack of money in the county accounts to pay them, the clerk's office said.

"We do appreciate you," Wooley told the group. "It seems at times the commission doesn't hear you, but they do hear you. We appreciate you and your help," Wooley said. "We desperately need your help, but you've got to try to work together!"

Susan K. Lamb may be reached by calling 386/362-1734 ext. 131 or by e-mail at susan.lamb@gaflnews.com