Fire issue still smoldering

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By Mark Scohier, Staff writer

Chiefland will be signing on to another year of fire protection for the incorporated portion of Otter Creek.

Commissioners voted 4-1 Monday night to approve signing the contract, which has Otter Creek paying Chiefland about $479 a month for services, despite Chiefland Fire Rescue Chief James Harris saying the deal could leave the city vulnerable due to lack of manpower.

The city has only one full-time firefighter, at times, Harris said, and if that firefighter is called to Otter Creek it could spell disaster for Chiefland in case of an emergency.

Commissioner Rollin Hudson, who voted against the deal, told Harris he was unclear on the Chief's position.

"Are you for it or against it?" Hudson asked.

"I'm not saying either one. I'm just letting you know what the consequences is," Harris responded.

The discussion on lack of manpower resumed a bit later when Vice Mayor Teresa Barron asked newly elected Betty Walker how her talks had gone with the county. Walker, at the last meeting, asked to hold off on a decision regarding the city imposing its own fire assessment to help cover what fire officials say is a lack of funding from the county.

Walker said initial talks went well, though, she added, city officials need to "cool off" until the first of the year.

"I think we can get something done," Walker said. "I think everything is going to work out. I really do."

Harris, among other things, said he wasn't sure, in the meantime, how to handle a mutual aid deal that has CFR sending firefighters to areas in District 7 outside city limits, which also potentially leaves the city vulnerable.

Barron said the issue stems from CFR being sent to District 7 when other departments do not respond.

Walker again said things would be more clear if the city could wait until the beginning of the year.

"You need to be clear about what you want them (CFR) to do," Barron told Walker.

Walker told Barron, who presides over the fire department, she didn't appreciate being "put on the spot."

Harris told Walker, "You're puttin' it on me."

"Well, you're the boss of your ships," Walker told him.

Hudson asked City Attorney Norm Fugate about the legalities of the mutual aid agreement. Fugate said the contract states CFR needs to devote "all available resources" in an emergency situation.

"The chief needs to interpret what 'all available resources' is to be," Fugate said.

Hudson said some situations can't be helped, even with more firefighters. There are times, he said, when even an adequately staffed department won't be able to make it to one emergency because another has already unfolded.

"I think you're missing the point ..." Harris said, explaining that the county, in a perfect world, should be able to relieve CFR at a District 7 emergency in a situation where another emergency develops.

Walker said emergency workers in the county have always had this problem because the population here is so spread out.

But Harris said the call load is growing and the problem is getting worse.

Walker said the problems "can't all be fixed at one time."

"There is a way ..." Barron said, explaining that the city tried to get advanced life support (ALS) capabilities. The county recently denied Chiefland's request for ALS, which city officials say would help save lives during waits for EMS transport.

Mayor Teal Pomeroy asked how ALS would help CFR respond to multiple fires.

"It helps the patient," said Firefighter A.D. Goodman from the audience.

"It doesn't help us a bit," Pomeroy said, with regard to coverage of emergency calls.

In a separate, but related, issue, commissioners voted unanimously to allow Harris to change a full-time firefighter position to two part-time positions, a move Harris said would help deal with the shortage of firefighters.

Firefighter pay for this position will be reduced a bit, Harris said, to make up the difference in time worked over 40 hours a week.

"It gives us more hours with coverage," he said, later adding that it's not uncommon  in the fire services profession.

"It's a good deal for them and a good deal for the city."