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June 19, 2014

White Springs: Volunteer firefighter incentives addressed

Jasper — White Springs Fire Chief Steve Stith offered his monthly update to the town council at their meeting on Tuesday, June 10. For the month of May, Stith said there were a total of 11 calls; six were medical, two were during the Folk Festival with a brush fire and a power line down, and there was one cancelled call.

Stith said after meeting with Hamilton County Emergency Management it was decided that the role of the White Springs Volunteer Fire Department is to be first responders and there was no current need to have extra responsibilities, such as paramedics, which Stith said was fine, although it could be deemed as a negative.

Stith is continuing to work with the Insurance Services Office (ISO) to ensure all requirements are being met. There are currently four certified firefighters on the force and two are in the process of getting certified, which will make a total of six for the town of White Springs when August rolls around. He also said he sent a copy of the interlocal agreement with Columbia County to the ISO, as well as photos of the newly enclosed building that houses the fire truck. He is awaiting a response as to whether anything more is needed to satisfy ISO requirements.

The stigma of the word volunteer

As was recently discussed at a county commission meeting, providing incentives for volunteer firefighters is a hot topic throughout the county. Stith brought the matter up to the town council.

“There have been some issues about the word “volunteer”...that volunteers shouldn’t get paid,” said Stith. “Back in the “olden” days, volunteers didn’t have requirements. If you wanted to be on the volunteer fire department, you were on it.”

Today, there are mandatory certification requirements in order to serve as a volunteer firefighter, so the term “volunteer” has a much different meaning.

Vice Mayor Walter McKenzie said the only possible argument he could imagine somebody bringing up is that there are other volunteer workers in the town who might object to paying the firefighters incentives when they don’t get paid for their volunteer services.

“What we’re talking about here is people that have volunteered and trained to do a dangerous job,” said McKenzie. “Somebody volunteering for special events doesn’t get called in the middle of the night four or five times a month to get up out of their bed and go do a special event. It’s a silly comparison.”

Incentives

Incentives, it’s been stated by many, are needed in order to attract and keep volunteers serving on their local fire departments. Stith explained there are two different accounts to fund fire departments. The fire department fund comes from fundraisers and payments for fire calls, which is money that is used to pay incentives and for buying equipment. He noted that medical calls are not paid for, however, the crews get paid.

“Every dollar in that fund is made by the members,” said Stith.

A second fund that comes from the county is used to pay for truck payments and other operating costs.

The fire department fund, Stith added, was turned over to the town to manage back around 2006 and somewhere along the line incentive payments to the volunteer firefighters stopped. He said he didn’t know things had changed when he came back on board recently as fire chief, so, as he had done in the past, he turned in a request for payment to Assistant Fire Chief Andrew Green for his monthly allotment of $80, which was questioned by Mayor Helen Miller.

Conflict or not

Stith said it was brought to his attention that there was a conflict concerning Green’s time spent responding to fire calls while on the clock for the town as water/sewer manager. Stith said since 2006 it was allowed for Green to respond to fire calls because it helped the community.

“When (former town manager) Bob Farley was here it was OK also,” said Stith.

Because the issue came up, Stith said he needed to know whether or not Green can continue as he has done in the past by responding to fire calls while working for the town of White Springs.

Miller said she was not aware of the previous agreement, which is why she declined to approve the request for payment to Green. Stith said since he came onboard originally in 2005, it had always been that way and was approved by the town manager. He said if it was an issue now, they could fix it and Green wouldn’t be allowed to respond to fire calls while at work for the town, however, “it would be a detriment to the community.”

Stith, who also works in Jacksonville, said he only works in the town of White Springs two or three days a week and if Green was not allowed to take over assistant fire chief duties the rest of the week, there would be no one in charge.

Miller said the matter has never been brought before the town council before and she thanked Stith for doing so.

McKenzie said he had no issue with the incentive payments to the volunteer firefighters and no issue with the accounting of the fire department fund.

Miller said the question is whether or not Green is spending enough time on his main duties overseeing the water/sewer plant and whether or not he is being double paid because of the $80 monthly incentive payment from the fire department, along with his 40-hour payment working for the town.

Stith interjected that Green also responds to any weekend fire calls, covers town events, and does paperwork for the fire department in Stith’s absence. He has been receiving a flat fee of $80, Stith said, and does not get paid additional monies for responding to calls.

“It’s kind of like getting paid salary,” said Stith. “You get no more than what you get, no matter how many calls you go on.”

Stith said Green is an active member of the volunteer fire department and has no qualms about going on as many fire calls as necessary.

Town Administrative Assistant Anita Rivers said she has noticed Green going on fire calls during his time working for the town, even when other volunteers were available to respond.

“There was no need in him going,” said Rivers.

McKenzie said, “We don’t have anybody else who is readily available, as trained and as capable right now. I don’t want somebody to need somebody to help them and not have that help because we make some restrictive policy that we probably don’t need to make. I don’t really think this is affecting his job. We’ve got to look out for the people who pick up the phone and call 911 and expect somebody to show up there.”

McKenzie said, hopefully, the town will get more volunteer firefighters and ease some of the burden on Green.

“But right now, that’s the way it is,” McKenzie said. “I don’t think we want to give that coverage up.”

It was noted there were currently no other volunteer firefighters living in the town. Stith also noted that volunteer firefighters don’t get paid for being on standby and no one is designated as being on standby for each day.

“If I’m working in Jacksonville, I can’t be here,” said Stith.

Green, he added, goes on 80 percent of the calls in White Springs.

McKenzie made a motion that the town approve Stith’s recommendation to pay each certified firefighter $10 per call, not to exceed $50 per month, pay support personnel $5 per call, not to exceed $50 per month, and pay the assistant fire chief (Green) a flat fee of $80 per month. Councilman Willy Jefferson seconded the motion and it was approved 5-0 by all council members.

Miller noted that council members come and go and some are unaware of “how things have been done in the past.” Since the incentive pay matter had always been handled by the town manager, it was never brought before the council until now when the town manager position sits vacant.

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