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April 17, 2014

Hamilton: Local fire issues discussed

Jasper — At the April 1 meeting of the Hamilton County Board of County Commissioners, Emergency Management Director Henry Land briefed the board on fire department matters within the county, specifically the recruitment and retention of firefighters.

The first Firefighter 1 class for the county took place April 1 at 6:30 p.m.

“That’s a big positive for us,” said Land. “It’s a step in the right direction.”

One thing that has been discussed numerous times in numerous venues lately is the possibility of offering an incentive program to the firefighters in the county, in order to help retain them for the long term.

“It’s a question that keeps coming back to me from the chiefs,” Land said. “They’re wanting some direction as to how to recruit and retain volunteers for the county. In order to keep our fire budget at a minimum, as we are right now, we need the volunteers. Without the volunteers it will not work.”

Land said to bring in one full time paid firefighter, who would provide the same amount of service as a volunteer does, it would cost about $60,000 a year.

“It would be a substantial cost,” he said.

Land said he sat down with others in his office and tried to come up with a way to justify giving an incentive to the county’s volunteer firefighters on a point system that would require them to attend certain amounts of training and respond to a certain number of calls.

“Just because you’re on a fire department, does not mean that you would get any incentive,” Land explained. “You have to be active.”

Land asked the board if it was OK that he visit local churches to try to recruit more volunteers to fill some vacancies and the board said they didn’t have a problem with it. Land said he was also offered money from a SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response) grant to help with recruitment efforts.

“It’s a recruitment campaign for the entire county,” said Land. “It should be enacted in the next couple of weeks.”

The campaign will consist of banners being placed around the county, as well as brochures that will be available.

“We intend on having a showing at the rodeo,” he continued. “Hopefully, all the material will be in and we can set up a booth there also.”

Local emergency declarations

Land said when a local state of emergency is declared, the courthouse and local government offices close down and employees are allowed to go home. He asked the board if it would be possible to ask those employees if they would care to volunteer that downtime at Emergency Management headquarters.

“It may be nothing more than answering phones or doing some type of paperwork,” said Land. “A lot of times during an activation we do not have enough personnel to carry out all of the duties. Clerical staff is one thing we’ve been lacking quite a bit.”

The big one

Land said, “We don’t have enough fires...enough structure fires, enough vehicle fires, we just don’t have enough.”

Land’s statement caught the commissioners off guard for a few moments, until he explained further.

“That’s a good thing that we don’t have enough, but one of the issues that it creates for us is that a lot of the younger recruits that we’re getting are not as familiar...they just did not grow up with the same life experiences that most of us did,” Land said, smiling. “So, one of the things that we’re going to have to overcome is that inexperience and try to teach them. Not necessarily in a book sense, but teach them in a practical scenario.”

The commissioners were chomping at the bit until Josh Smith finally said, “Spit it out. Tell us what you want to do. You want to set something on fire.”

“I want to set something on fire,” Land admitted. “Basically, what I want to be able to do is buy three Conex boxes and build a burn building, a certified training facility for the fire department. There is not one in the North Florida area. The closest ones are in Niceville and Ocala.”

Land said the cost for the project is about $15,000 and that there is $18,000 in an insurance fund account. Land said he will also go to PotashCorp to ask for assistance.

The commissioners told Land to get figures together for the complete cost of the project. They also agreed to have their attorneys look into the possibility of offering some sort of retirement program to the volunteer firefighters.

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