Chiefland fire protection may not be adequate

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By Carolyn Risner

John Ward is passionate about his job. So passionate that he continues to amass data for the Chiefland City Commission in an effort to persuade its members the city needs full-time fire protection. Now.

For the second time in as many weeks, Ward, the city's fire chief, appeared before the commissioners to outline why the city needs to add four full-time firefighters, in addition to the two it already funds.

Ward wants to pay the salaries for the new hires from a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant. But before any of that can be done, he has to have the commissioners' permission to apply for the grant.

Ward explained that during day hours he and another firefighter are available for service. Everyone else who responds is a volunteer. Some can leave their jobs on a moment's notice; others cannot. The situation gets trickier at night when many of the volunteers leave their Chiefland jobs to return to their homes.

Compounding matters is that more and more training is needed for people to be volunteer firefighters.

When firefighters learn that they must have 229 hours of training, many think they should just finish training and go elsewhere as a paid firefighter.

"In reality," Ward said, "the fire department has always been the red-headed stepchild because we make no revenue to subsidize what we do."

About half of all calls the Chiefland Fire Department responds to are in the unincorporated area.

"What would Levy County do if we withdrew?" Mayor Teal Pomeroy asked.

"Nothing," the chief theorized, "but we'd be leaving our citizens to the wolves."

One of Ward's biggest concerns is that with the expected potential growth, with the hospital and residential developments, Chiefland's fire protection will be inadequate.

Chiefland currently has 12 volunteers and only eight of them are certified to make entry into a hazardous atmosphere. OSHA standards mandate that two firefighters enter the area and two remain outside. Sometimes those standards are impossible to meet.

And should Chiefland grow, as predicted, the fire department will definitely not have enough firefighters.

If the commission allows Ward to apply for the grant and the city receives it, six full-time firefighters would be hired, each working a 56-hour work week: 24 hours on, 48 hours off.

In year one, the city would be responsible for $12,300 for those salaries. Each year it raises and in year five, the city would have to pay $240,000.

"Without the grant to accomplish the same outcome," Ward wrote to the commissioners, "would cost the city $1.2 million."

Pomeroy questioned the predicted growth, saying that only eight houses were built in the city limits last year and to date, the hospital has not applied for any permits.

Vice Mayor Teresa Barron told Ward that no one was disputing that he needed more people, but said the city needed more time to prepare for that kind of financial responsibility.

Ward also said the fire department acts as first responders to the county's EMS needs and receives no reimbursement for that service, adding he knew of no fire departments that did.

Commissioner Frank Buie said Ward and a delegation from the commission should go to the county and appeal to its commissioners for more funds, since a lot of what the city's workers do is in the unincorporated area.

After a long discussion, commissioners asked Ward to come back with more information regarding how much the county receives in fire assessments from this district and how much it distributes to the city from those assessments.

Ward has until July to make application for the SAFER grant, if the city agrees to it.