Will county fire trucks roll or ‘wait’ on F’ville fires? Rapson: ‘We can’t be augmenting Fayetteville fire services’
Fayette County officials are studying a potential reduction of fire services provided to residents in the city of Fayetteville, in the wake of a second failed attempt to consolidate the city and county fire departments.
It could mean that county fire trucks will no longer automatically roll on the initial dispatch to a reported fire, leaving city trucks to be the first responder on all city calls, explained County Administrator Steve Rapson. Once the first city unit arrives, it can call for the county’s help if needed under a mutual aid arrangement, Rapson explained.
Currently, under an automatic aid agreement, the county fire trucks are dispatched the same time as Fayetteville fire trucks to any fire call in the city limits.
The elimination of the automatic aid agreement between the city and county would have a “devastating effect” on residents in the city and county who rely on having a quick response via the closest available unit, Fayettevile Fire Chief Alan Jones said Tuesday.
“If the county were to pull back on automatic aid, the city might have to make some adjustments and we might not be able to respond in the county because we have more area to keep covered in the city,” Jones said. “I think that’s a horrible way to move forward.”
The idea that county fire trucks might be delayed to a fire call in Fayetteville is news to most Fayetteville council members, as only Mayor Greg Clifton could recall the matter being suggested during a meeting with him, Councilman Mickey Edwards, County Commission Chairman Steve Brown, County Administrator Steve Rapson and Fire Chief David Scarbrough following the city’s retreat and prior to the joint city-county meeting.
Other than Edwards, the other four council members told The Citizen they had not heard of the county potentially changing its response to city fire calls if consolidation were to be denied. Edwards said he couldn’t recall when he heard it, but he recalled that adjustments would have to be made.
Rapson noted that the change to a potential “mutual aid” agreement is being studied by Fire Chief David Scarbrough, and no final decision has been made. Under mutual aid, the county would not automatically roll to all city fire calls, but instead would be “on call” to assist if the city decides it needs to call for help, Rapson explained.
With the lack of consolidation and the potential for future Fayetteville annexations to affect revenues in the county’s fire tax, the time is now to evaluate ways to increase efficiency, Rapson said.
“The board of commissioners’ position is that they [Fayetteville] need to budget enough to stand up their own fire department independently of the county,” Rapson said. “… We can’t be augmenting Fayetteville fire services.”
Rapson noted that if the city only has six firefighters on duty when a fire call goes out for example, and there are eight to 10 people needed on the scene to fight that fire, the county would be providing the extra needed personnel.
“That may look the exact same under mutual aid, the only difference being we get there a little later than sooner,” Rapson said. “We wouldn’t be called until they said, ‘Yeah, there’s a fire here, dispatch a county fire crew.”
Jones said a switch to mutual aid response with the county would also hurt county residents who currently have a Fayetteville fire crew first on the scene due to the location of fire stations.
It also would stand to hurt Fayetteville residents as the city is up for an ISO review in October, and if the city and county switch to a mutual aid agreement, the city won’t get credit for the presence of the county firefighters … much like the county got credit for the city firefighters in its 2011 ISO review, Jones said.
If the city’s ISO rating were to rise, it is likely to cost homeowners with higher insurance rates.
Jones added that the city and county have worked under automatic aid since 1989 and it was widely expanded in 1998. Jones said he looked forward to working with Scarbrough in maximizing the efficiency of responding to fire calls.
“Until I find out exactly what the county plans to do, I am just kind of speculating, but to eliminate all automatic aid and make it mutual aid is a concern,” Jones said. “I can’t speculate what the city’s reaction would be if that were to happen.”
The Fayetteville City Council voted 3-2 April 23 to deny the consolidation proposal pitched by county officials, with councilmen Paul Oddo and Mickey Edwards favoring the merger.
The vote came at the end of a heated meeting which featured only one speaker from the public in favor of consolidation and more than two dozen in opposition.
At that meeting, city officials showed that it will cost a tax increase of about two-thirds of a mill — equal to $48 a year on a home valued at $200,000 — to build, equip and staff a new city fire station off Veterans Parkway.
Due to the annexation of the acreage in West Fayetteville connected to the Pinewood Atlanta Studios development, the county will not collect a fire tax on that property because the city runs its own fire service.
Had consolidation been approved, the county would have started assessing its 3.07-mill fire tax to all city properties including homeowners and businesses, providing a significant additional revenue to the county which in turn would have absorbed all of the city’s full-time fire employees at positions in the county fire department that would have resulted in at least a small raise for each employee, county officials have said.
Nothing was revealed about how capital assets like buildings and fire trucks would have been handled had the consolidation gone through.
Fayetteville residents do pay an EMS tax to the county to pay for the county providing EMS and ambulance services to all calls originating in the city limits.
The county has 11 fire stations to service the unincorporated county, Brooks, Woolsey and Tyrone. The city meanwhile operates just two fire stations to cover the entire city, though the West Fayetteville station is slotted for the near future to deal with growth around Pinewood and Piedmont Fayette Hospital in particular.
— Additional reporting by Ben Nelms