Lamar County commissioners are considering a partnership with the Paris Fire Department which will see automatic aid to county structure fires should the proposal be successful.
When commissioners met for their meeting on August 6, they began considering the possibility of an automatic aid agreement. Paris Fire Department Chief Mike Vogel presented the agreement.
“This is a very serious issue and one that I do not take lightly. I have kept an open mind with this proposal, and it may come down to whether or not the county can afford it,” Lamar County Judge Brandon Bell said.
Since news broke of the meeting and possible agreement, the public has had mixed reactions. Mostly a positive one, but clarification wasn’t abundant for overall understanding should the proposal be successful.
The original drafted letter by Vogel stated; “I have attached a worksheet with the financial details for a potential automatic aid agreement between Paris Fire Department and Lamar County. These numbers reflect the cost of four firefighters that we would send on working structure fires in Lamar County. The attached figures assume that Paris FD would send a fire apparatus staffed with four fully trained TCFP firefighters to work structure fires in Lamar County.”
What this means for citizens is that even with a local volunteer department responding there will be the back-up from the Paris Fire Department.
“With volunteer firefighters, they are just that, volunteers. So when a call comes in, there are factors that come into play for a response to a structure fire call. Unknown’s like, if someone is working in town, or if there will be enough people to get to the station and then gear up to respond is all part of the unknown with each call,” explained Lamar County Commissioner Ronnie Bass.
“If we can have automatic aid from the city fire department it will considerably lower the risk of a house being completely lost to fire. It also lowers extended amounts of time for back up to arrive and it lessens the risk of someone being trapped inside or hurt for both the citizens and volunteers responding,” he added.
Fellow Commissioner Kevin Anderson echoed that of Bass saying he understood the already high-risk factors of this particular job skill.
“If there’s someone trapped, whether it be a citizen or volunteer firefighter, I don’t want to put a dollar value on a human life,” Anderson said.
Anderson, who said he is in support of the proposal, also made it clear that he was listening to all sides on the matter with an open mind.
“My job is to listen to my citizens and their concerns. Because my decision is ultimately reflected for those that I represent,” he said.
Lamar County Judge Brandon Bell said while he understands why the aid agreement was proposed, he has several concerns.
“My concern is both the cost and effectiveness of the proposed partnership. Adding four firemen to the Paris Fire Department will not assure the citizens of Lamar County a faster response time. The proposed agreement clearly states that the city limits of Paris come first. Paris FD personnel are some of the best people you will meet, and I cannot imagine a Paris fire officer not sending help if at all possible. But the proposed agreement does not guarantee a response out into the county if incidents within Paris preclude sending a unit,” Bell explained of his position for considering the proposal.
Dropping the risk factor
Automatic aid is far more effective for a positive outcome than mutual aid, which is what the county sees now.
By switching from mutual to automatic, it means that at any time of day four career firefighters are ready to respond alongside volunteer fire departments anywhere in the county.
Paris firefighter Drew Boren said, “From a career firefighters perspective, it could cost county residents roughly $5 a person per year, to know four trained firefighters that do this for a living are coming to help. This is reassuring.”
Quick responses can not only save lives but save property and lower the odds of a responder getting injured while attempting to help others. It’s equivalent to a good insurance policy.
“With automatic aid, at any time of day or night there would be a fully equipped truck and personnel to TCFP and NFPA 1901 certified, responding at the time a call comes in,” said Vogel, “this agreement is not to take away from volunteer departments it is to enhance their ability to help put out a fire and keep the community safe. It’s all about lowering the risks.”
“It would help the VFDs by getting them more people on the scene promptly, that are equipped and trained. Additionally, it helps increase the chances of a positive outcome if there is someone unable to get out of the building that is on fire. In addition to helping increase life safety for our citizens and our firefighters, it could possibly help lower insurance costs to the citizens of our county because an “automatic aid agreement” was in place,” Reno Volunteer Fire Chief and Paris Fire Department Captain Chad Graves explained.
“I’ve been a volunteer firefighter for the county for over 12-years and paid firefighter for over 9-years with the City of Paris, and I see how both sides operate,” Powderly Volunteer firefighter and Paris FD firefighter Dustin Huff said, “Paris has a great relationship with the volunteers, and from talking to a lot of them I know they want to see this take place because they see the need and impact that it can have! I’ve seen many times where not enough people show up to the fires and times where second and third pages go out to get responses for the fire. And you have to remember that not everyone who shows up to the fire in the county can make entry into the structure to fight the fire due to having to be trained to certain levels. Having four guys coming from Paris as soon as the call comes in to dispatch not only saves time but gives you four extra men who are coming to the fire and can assist in any way.”
With a nationwide shortage of volunteers stepping up to join departments, there is also the loss of life seen across the country.
Of the 100 firefighters that perish each year, 70 percent of that number are volunteers. As such, there are also varied numbers with each volunteer department that sees a range of ages, and skillsets that not everyone is qualified or comfortable to enter a burning building. This alone can reduce the number of firefighters entering to put out the blaze.
“Safety is an integral part of the discussions and decision-making. I take the safety of the citizens and the firefighters very seriously. I am told the number of active volunteers has been decreasing over the last few years. There may be other solutions that we should explore concerning this problem,” Bell said.
The benefits of automatic response
The city of Paris benefits from this proposal alongside Lamar County, which has never been secret. The city will help with being able to hire one more full-time firefighter Vogel said.
“By having one more firefighter to the city, we will be able to have our trucks staffed accordingly. The rule we work with is two in, two out. We are trained to work in pairs, and should this be approved. The city will certainly benefit from a staff of 15 firefighters ready to respond at any moment,” he added.
Lamar County will see the most out of this agreement; to which it should. With an estimated cost of $248,351 per year to the county, they are only covering the wages and benefits for four firefighters ready to respond at any given time.
However, Bell said he has been looking closely at the costs, although cheap in the grand scheme of things; it still boasts as a significant expense for the county.
“The proposed agreement has a substantial cost given the ‘County’s budget.’ I know the taxpayers want me to be careful with their money. And I am not sure this agreement is the most effective way to spend their money. Other alternatives should be looked at before rushing into this agreement. We have to be frugal. There simply is not much wiggle room. Unfunded mandates are passed down to the county every time the Legislature meets, and the latest legislative sessions have not been an exception. Therefore, the cost is significant given our restraints,” Bell said.
Chief Vogel said that the running costs of a standard station are just over $1 million to run. By helping cover the wages and benefits of career firefighters, the overall monetary layout is relatively low to the county budget.
When it comes to training, volunteer firefighters would have the option to train with the city department at no cost to their VFD. This aspect would allow volunteers to understand correct protocols and also have the ability to attend more regular training when available.
Rescue 1 already responds to 160 call-outs a year to the county as an aid for a vehicle accident; at present with the department being only mutual aid, the truck and crew do not respond to county structure fires unless a VFD has made a request. If the automatic aid proposal moves forward, it is guaranteed that a truck will always respond on the first tone out.
For those that reside in the city, Vogel says this agreement would not leave the city short-handed. A call-out would be made at the discretion of the deputy chief on shift to ensure off-duty firefighters would be called in to cover that crew gap still keeping the city full staffed.
“There are protocols in place to ensure that the citizens of Paris will continue to be protected. The city of Paris comes first, but if we can help even one person, one household in the county by guaranteeing we will be there to help their volunteer service-I think it is worth the investment,” Vogel said.
Even with some reservations from citizens on the proposed automatic aid agreement; Anderson said that there would not be any added taxes to county residents, but commissioners will have to find the money in the budget. The deal is also specified that automatic response will be for structure fire call-outs only and other call-outs such as barn fires and grass fires would remain under mutual aid.
“We appreciated the county commissioners and Judge Bell being willing to listen to the problem we are confronted with and hope that a viable solution is reached,” Graves said.
“I have many great friends within our County Volunteer Fire Departments. A better group of people you will not find. I do not doubt that many of the Volunteer Departments are in favor of an agreement with the city. As I said, I am keeping an open mind. I feel like it is my job to make sure that when our tax dollars are spent towards public safety, we have all of the information to make the best decision,” Bell said.
It is unknown when an official decision will be made, but it is clear that those who are looking to find a solution are attempting to look at all aspects of the issue and are taking all considerations from citizens.