Waynesville firefighters outline reasons for promoting tax increase
By: Waynesville Rural Fire Chief Doug Yurecko
Posted: Friday, April 2, 2010 4:51 pm
Waynesville Rural Fire Chief Doug Yurecko
On April 6, the voters of the Waynesville Rural Fire protection District have an important decision to make: keep paid firefighters or go back to an all-volunteer fire fighting force.
This may not seem like an important choice, but it is a choice as important as life or death.
Currently the fire district employs 12 full-time firefighters, divided into three shifts of four people each. These firefighters work shifts of 48 hours on duty and 96 hours off duty. Having firefighters in the station able to respond at a moments notice saves lives and property. Some may think that is an overstatement of the facts, but the recent fire at Shannon Valley apartments shows the importance of a timely response. Lives were saved by the responding firefighters, ambulance, and law enforcement personnel. If the fulltime firefighters had not been at the station when the alarm was sounded, there is very high possibility that we would have multiple fatalities!
In 2009 the Waynesville Rural Fire Protection District responded to approximately 900 calls for service. Of this number, 199 were fires of some type, with 51 being structure fires. The other 700 calls for service ranged from motor vehicle accidents to cats stuck in trees; yes, we do get Fluffy down for grandma!
These calls come in at all times of the day and night. Our fulltime firefighters respond out of our headquarters station in Waynesville, with the goal of being out of the station within two minutes. Most of the time we see a out-of-the-door time of a minute and a half. This is not possible with an all-volunteer fire fighting force.
In 2006, the district saw a need for fulltime firefighters since the number of volunteers was dropping. The dropping number of volunteers is and will continue to be a national trend. Families are busier, people have two jobs, kids have soccer practice, and all of that leaves little time for volunteer activities. Emergencies happen at all times of the day and night, when the alarm sounds and the volunteers must leave work (if their employer will let them), stop their shopping, take the kids home, or get out of bed, get dressed, warm up the car and drive to the station, critical minutes are wasted! The faster we get out the door, the quicker we arrive on scene, the quicker the fire is put out, the less damage is done, and the more lives are saved.
The same applies to all calls we go on. We assist the local ambulance districts on a number of types of calls. In some cases this assistance is life-saving; some calls are just assistance with loading a patient.
The other duties that the full-time firefighters perform are administrative in nature, answering telephone calls, conducting fire inspections, issuing burn permits (of which more than 900 were issued in 2009), giving directions to lost drivers, and giving fire prevention classes and the occasional fire station tour to school groups or visitors that just stop by. Other tasks include maintaining the district's nineteen pieces of mobile equipment, a fleet of four fire engines, one ladder truck, one rescue truck, two tankers, and three brush trucks, and eight other pieces of mobile equipment. Throw in maintaining three fire stations, paperwork, and anything else that comes up, you can certainly see a need for fulltime firefighters.
In February 2007, the board of directors asked the district voters to approve a 25-cent tax increase to hire fulltime firefighters. This increase was narrowly defeated. The voter turn out was very low, the issue was not covered as well as we had hoped by the local media, and the election was one of the few things on the ballot. We believe that had more voters known, it would have passed. After the failure of the measure, the board decided to look for other revenue to fund this important need. They directed the fire chief to find funding.
In late 2007, the Department of Homeland Security announced the opening of grant application period for the SAFER grant program. The SAFER program is a grant that funds hiring firefighters for a five-year period and pays a portion of salary and benefits of the new firefighters. In February 2008, we received notification that the district had been awarded $667,699 in funding to hire 12 fulltime firefighters. The board had a hard decision to make: accept the grant, with a commitment to provide $683,949 of matching funds, or turn down the grant. This grant has a requirement to maintain these positions for a total of five years, ending in 2013. The board took the giant step of accepting this grant. On April 2008 we became the second fire department in Pulaski County to have fulltime firefighters. We are now considered a combination department; we have paid staff and volunteers. We will continue to recruit volunteers; having four firefighters on duty does not remove the need for volunteers. At many calls, the paid firefighters can handle the incident, but any fire requires many more firefighters. National standards require a minimum of 16 firefighters at a first-alarm fire, so the need for volunteers is as great as ever!
We have had a great deal of success with grant funding. Since 2002, the fire district has received almost $700,000 in grant funding, not including the $1.3 million SAFERS grant. This funding has allowed us to replace outdated and unserviceable personal protective equipment. This equipment (bunker gear and self contained breathing apparatus) the equipment that keeps us safe in a fire, replace worn out fire hose, nozzles, and other equipment. Without the success of these grants, our firefighters would not have the equipment necessary to safely fight fires. We have bought used fire apparatus when possible to save money. As with any other business, costs continue to rise, insurance premiums climb, fuel cost more, and utilities cost more. These costs and the reduced levy make it necessary to ask for the additional levy.
The district is asking the voters to approve a 25-cent additional tax levy to allow the district to keep the fulltime firefighters after the grant funding runs out. This additional funding will pay salaries and benefits for the paid firefighters. It will also provide line item funding for two other budget categories, capital improvements, and public education and firefighter training. The capital improvements fund will provide funding for apparatus replacement, and new fire station construction. The current fire apparatus fleet has an average age of 24 years, with the oldest fire engine being 39 years old, and the newest fire engine being 11 years old. These fire engines and the rest of the fleet are requiring extensive and expensive repairs. In 2009 the district spent more than $30,000 in apparatus repairs. The capital improvement fund will also provide funding to maintain, repair, and construct new fire stations. Based on the locations of new subdivisions within the fire district, the district has determined a need for three additional fire stations. These station locations were determined by using insurance company requirements that all structures must be within a five-mile radius of a fire station. We would also use this fund to help the county water districts install fire hydrants where the water flow is adequate. The public education and firefighters training line item will be used to fund a fire prevention education that will allow us to provide training and educational materials to the local schools. This fund will also provide funding for training our fulltime and volunteer firefighters.
In 1996, the fire district was established with a voter-approved levy of 30 cents on $100 assessed value. Due to the Hancock Amendment, we only received the 30 cents one year. The current allowed levy is 21 cents; this levy has been reduced every year in accordance with state law. The fire district does not have a cash reserve, due to increased cost of operations. Some of the annual cost are listed in the below table.
Auto Insurance: $15,102 Health Insurance: $33,658 Workers Comp Insurance: $20,847 Payroll: $342,000 Debt Reduction: $123,901 Fuel $10,000
There is an additional benefit to this proposition. With this funding, we will be able to lower the ISO rating of the district. This rating is used by insurance companies to establish insurance premiums. The lower the rating, the lower the premiums. For example, someone with a Class 9 rating pays $877 a year in insurance premiums. If the rating drops to a Class 4, the new premium will be $483. They could see up to $394 per year in lower premiums. If their home is appraised at $200,000, they will pay $95 more in taxes. This is a $299.00 net savings a year.
This proposition is a winner all the way around: the district keeps its paid firefighters, the citizens and the firefighters are safer, and the insurance premiums drop.
On April 6, please vote YES on Proposition FF (Saving our Firefighters)