Federal Grant Puts Arkansas Volunteer on Fast Track to Combination

GREENWOOD -- A 10-year plan for upgrading the Greenwood Fire Department from a volunteer department to a full-time department got two big boosts this month, putting the full-time portion of the upgrade on fast-forward.

On Nov. 3, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security awarded the city a matching, five-year, $856,990 Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant. The grant allows Greenwood to hire 10 full-time firefighters, Fire Chief Don Oliver said Tuesday.

Whether city officials would accept it or turn it back depended on Greenwood voters passing a new sales tax that would supply needed matching funds for staffing and for firefighting equipment and training, Mayor Garry Campbell has said.

On Nov. 7, the voters came through. In a 1,241 to 1,148 vote, they passed a 10-year, three-quarters percent sales tax to fund Fire Department, parks and road improvements -- with revenues divided evenly between the three departments. The tax will take effect Jan. 1. It will raise Greenwood’s sales tax rate from 8.25 percent to 9 percent. The city already has a 1 percent sales tax. Sebastian County’s rate is 1.25 percent, and the state’s rate is 6 percent.

Campbell said Tuesday city officials anticipate the Fire Department’s annual share of the new tax to be more than $300,000 a year.

"We believe it will be enough to fund the Fire Department," Campbell said.

Now the city can move its full-time plans from the last phase of its 10-year Fire Department growth plan to the front end, Oliver said.

The city has 31 volunteer firefighters, and the plan is to have a combination volunteer and and full-time department such as that in Carson City, the capital of Nevada, Oliver said. Greenwood will hire a full-time fire chief, three firefighters for each shift and a 10th firefighter to serve as a floater, covering for vacation and sick days, Oliver said.

Still needed, Campbell said, is a strategic plan for budgeting money for any needed facilities and equipment.

According to a staffing grant, the federal grant provides $301,825 the first year, and the city kicks in $33,536. In year two, the federal share drops to $276,337, and the city’s share grows to $69,084. In year three, the feds contribute $177,892 and the city contributes $177,891. In year four, the feds kick in $109,937 and the city kicks in $256,520. In the fifth year, the city contributes the full $377,450 anticipated payroll expense.

Over the five years, the federal share totals $865,990, and the city’s totals $914,481.

City growth played a big role in its decision to go full-time, but it wasn’t the sole factor, Oliver and Campbell said.

Over the past four years, Greenwood suffered three fire fatalities, and a growing sentiment among residents was that some of the tragedy may have been averted had the city had a full-time rather than a volunteer department. Residents believed a full-time department could have shortened response time by about five minutes, Campbell said.

The 2000 U.S. Census showed Greenwood with a population of 7,112. Its 2006 estimated population is 8,626, Oliver said, and city number crunchers estimate it will grow to 11,041 by 2016.

Western Arkansas Planning and Development District projects Greenwood’s population will be 12,100 by 2020 and 13,000 by 2025.

A recent ISO rating drop from 7 to 5 came with a list of things the city could do to drop the home and business fire insurance rating even lower, Campbell said.

The City Council asked for a long-term growth plan and appointed a four-member ISO Fire-Rating Task Committee, Oliver said. Committee members were Dane Burgess, Duane Hartman and council members Daniel McDaniel and David Purifoy.

Greenwood hopes to drop its ISO rating to a 3, which would save every household about $200 a year on insurance premiums, Campbell said. The drop from 7 to 5 translated to about $230 a year savings per household, he said.

According to New Jersey-based ISO, there are 11 Class 10 communities in Arkansas. A Class 10 rating means the community doesn’t meet ISO’s minimum fire protection criteria. There are 696 Class 9 Communities; 97 Class 8; 157 Class 7; 170 Class 6; 142 Class 5; 67 Class 4; 42 Class 3 and 8 Class 2 communities. There are no Class 1-rated Arkansas communities. Ratings are on a point system from 0-100, with Class 1 communities scoring 90 points or more and Class 10 communities coming in under 10 points.

Fort Smith and Van Buren both have full-time department and Class 2 ratings. Fort Smith employs about 126 firefighters and operates 10 station locations. Van Buren employs about 37 firefighters and operates three stations.

According to ISO, criteria include the handling of fire alarms, response time and distance, manpower, documented training, equipment and water supply.

Oliver has been a volunteer member of the department since 1975. He said Greenwood’s fire station, next to its City Hall, was built to house a full-time department and has sleeping quarters for men and women. The station houses three pumper trucks and a brush truck, he said.

In the first three years, Greenwood anticipates spending annually $145,107 for salaries, benefits and training; $16,720 for protective gear, fuel, hoses, training materials and office supplies; $7,700 for basic maintenance; and about $61,742 for needed rescue and breathing equipment, GPS devices and the like. A command vehicle for the fire chief is also recommended. Those current needs total about $297,000, Oliver said.

In phase two, three years out, the city is eying building a $136,000 eastside substation on property it owns next to the boat ramp at Lake Jack Nolan, acquiring land for a westside substation, a 1,500-gallon per minute pumper truck and a brush truck. Total cost is estimated at $726,000, he said.

The final phase of the 10-year plan would bring a $360,000 westside substation, another $200,000 1,500 gpm pumper and a $500,000 75-foot ladder truck to deal with structures higher than two stories.

The total 10-year cost is estimated at $4.75 million, Oliver said.

When the city knows how and when the grant and tax revenues will be distributed, it will look at the application and testing process for new firefighter employees, Campbell said.

Campbell said he hopes some of Greenwood’s volunteer firefighters will be interested in going full-time "because we do have some good guys, and they are well-trained."