Fire protection lacking in Lumpkin
Citizens have been clamoring for more fire stations to improve protection for their property and to improve their ISO (Insurance Services Office) rating to reduce the amount of homeowner’s insurance for several years. And while the county has increased the number of stations since insurance rates went up in the mid-2000s, a recent study reveals that the county is lacking in it’s manned stations, water access and fire fighting personnel.
Earlier this year Lumpkin County’s Board of Commissioners requested Georgia Mountains Regional Commission to conduct an assessment of the county’s emergency services. The idea came about during discussion of the Capital Improvement Plan and what all should be included. Questions arose as to whether more personnel would provide better fire protection than more stations.
Both more stations and personnel would help with both protection and ISO ratings, the report shows.
At the time of the report the county had 36 full time and 18 part time firefighters, plus 18 volunteers. Full time personnel includes the fire chief, deputy chief, training chief and fire inspector.
Based on 2014 population statistics, fire/EMS provides services at a ratio of 866 citizens for every one full time personnel. “Lumpkin County Emergency Services believes it should be providing service at a ratio of around 450 per firefighter,” the report states.
This would meet the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) standard of five personnel on duty at all times per station. Currently, Lumpkin has 2.74.
County commissioners would have to vote to increase the department’s personnel by 22 full time positions in order to meet this standard—at an initial cost of about $1.2 million per year. That cost would increase as personnel advanced in pay grade—if the department could keep those hires through the years. One of the other things the study revealed was that while Lumpkin County’s base salary for firefighter/EMTs is $53,301, including benefits. That is close to the state average, the report states. However, upper management salaries are below the state average.
In addition, in order to keep up with the standard, the department would have to add two full time personnel for every 1,000 increase in residents after 31,176 population figure is reached. According to past growth patterns, that’s two new hires every two years.
Lumpkin County Fire Department (LCFD) serves 291 square miles. About 45 percent of that is national forest land. Population estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau for July 1, 2016 are 31,408.
The county currently has three stations manned by two firefighter/EMTs on a 24/7 basis—Station #1 on Morrison Moore and Pinetree Way, #2 at Pierce’s Store and #4 at Chesterra. The station at the Ranger Camp on Camp Wahsega Road is also fully manned, though not with county employees. Three other stations are currently volunteer only facilities—#3 at Yahoola, #6 at Nimblewell and #8 at Blackburn. Station #5 at Mill Creek is manned on a part time basis.
There are also automatic aid agreements with White and Dawson counties and mutual aid agreements with Hall and Forsyth counties, the U.S. Forest Service and Georgia Forestry, as well as the state.
A station in the Frogtown area may have been voted on Tuesday, after this week’s paper went to press. One other at Ben Higgins and Highway 9 has been considered.
“Once (these) stations ... are built, the majority of properties inside the county will be within a five-mile radius of a station,” the report states.
But the building must be equipped in order to qualify as a fire station.
The state requires each fire station to have a 1,250 gpm (gallons per minute) pumper with a 1,800 gallon tank minimum. The price tag for a fire engines is about $371,000 and up.
Depending on the service area and location, the fire department recommends having one of several pumpers, a tender, ambulance and a wildland/bush truck at each station, plus one aerial apparatus (ladder truck). Small ambulances cost about $185,000.
The report states that Lumpkin’s emergency services recommends adopting a standard of having one or several pumpers, tenders to carry additional water to an incident scene, ambulances and/or wildland/brush trucks at each station, as well as one ladder truck. The equipment stationed at the location would depend on the service area.
Adding a ladder truck to the county’s firefighting aresenal would serve to reduce ISO ratings, even though there are very few buildings in the county that would need such an apparatus.
In addition to being within five miles of a station, said EMS Chief David Wimpy, “... you also have to be within 1,000 feet of a water source,” EMS Director David Wimpy said. “Pumper trucks don’t count toward your ISO.”
Because so few areas of the county have public water—there are some subdivisions with private water systems—the fire department must shuttle water to nearly all fire scenes. The study reports two options to address the issue.
In the short range, improving the dry hydrant program would improve both protection and insurance rates.
As with increasing the number of personnel, there is a cost attached.
There are 20-25 locations LCFD has identified as ideal for dry hydrants to be placed. An outside engineer would have to be hired to certify the sites at a cost of between $250 and $500 per site. Then an outside contractor would have to be hired to install the dry hydrants. Estimated cost of between $1,500 and $3,000 per site.
The long range solution, of course, is extending existing water lines throughout the county. The report did not give an estimated cost for this project, but did state that hydrants should be placed every 1,000 feet and cost $6,000 each.
Completing the proposed fire stations, purchasing adequate equipment and improving the water supply system would all improve ISO ratings and fire suppression capabilities. But additional personnel appears to be the the largest piece of the puzzle, as well as the most expensive on an on-going basis.
When it comes to staffing, an additional problem looms for the county as 14 of the current employees are over 50 years of age.
“In the field of firefighting age has an important role. Once past a certain age, the physical demands of the job become too much. With this number of firefighters over the age of 50, the probability of them retiring or not being able to continue due to physical condition is highly likely. This would put even more strain on the personnel issue that Lumpkin County is currently dealing with,” the study concludes.
The county has made significant progress over the last 10 years. In 2006, the county hired a full time fire chief and deputy chief. In 2007, three full time personnel were added. In 2009, seven additional firefighters were acquired through a grant. In 2011, the BOC approved making one part time position full time. In 2014, a full time Deputy Fire Marshall position was approved, bringing the total number of firefighters/EMS personnel to 38. Three more personnel will be coming on board shortly if the county is awarded a grant it has applied for.
In the end, it all comes down to money. Fire protection and lower ISO ratings come at a substantial cost.
“It’s up to the citizens to tell us how much fire protection they are willing to pay for,” said County Manager Stan Kelley.