A fire chief is sounding the call to consolidate the various fire departments in Effingham County.
Springfield Fire Chief Travis Zittrouer said a single, countywide fire department would improve service and cost less than each of the three cities and the county having their own, individual units.
“We can do more as one fire department than we could do as four separate departments,” he said.
“That’s my 100 percent belief.”
One of the biggest advantages, Zittrouer said, would be in the elimination of some paperwork. He also believes it would save money in the long run.
“The longer we operate as independent fire departments, the more money we’re using,” he said. “It’s a duplication of efforts and a duplication of paperwork.
“Everyone would receive the same service,” the chief said. “And we don’t have fire chiefs competing with each other.”
“I’ve seen nothing but budgets grow for everybody in the county since the service delivery agreements,” Springfield City Manager Brett Bennett said. “I personally feel like these service delivery agreements have created more of a competitive environment and we’ve seen nothing but budgets grow.”
County Commission Chairman Wendall Kessler backed the idea of consolidating fire services.
“Consolidation of services is a cost-saving mechanism we’ve got to start looking at,” he said. “The key is going to be a county-wide analysis of where we need what.”
Fulton County split its fire services eight years ago and they now regret the decision, according to Zittrouer.
“They didn’t get the level of service they expected,” he said.
The hurdle for consolidating fire services, Zittrouer said, lies at the fire chief level and with their respective governing bodies.
Rincon and Effingham County each have training centers, Zittrouer pointed out.
As part of the service delivery agreement, the cities are required to submit to the county what they believe their fire services budgets are going to be. But Springfield’s budget year differs from the county’s fiscal year.
“It makes it complicated,” Bennett said.
What is proposed, Bennett said, is a substantial increase for the city.
Zittrouer is asking to add two more paid firefighters to the staff, giving the city 24/7 coverage. Currently, the city has paid staff covering 12 hours a day on weekdays and 12 hours a day on weekends with part-time assistance.
With the two additional firefighters, the city will have three firefighters during the week and will be able to have them on rotating shifts, with 24 hours on and 48 hours off. It will bring the city’s level of full-time staff up to five.
The additional staff is expected to cost $85,000. Those positions will be funded on a percentage split, since about 65 percent of the city’s calls are outside the city’s limits. The portion funded by the county will be $55,684.85, and the city will have to come up with an additional $29,984.
Since 2011, 65 percent of the calls city firefighters have responded to have been outside the city limits. Getting the extra individuals on staff would free up the department’s budget for part-time firefighters, and part-timers would be used only when a firefighter was out sick or unavailable.
About 90 percent of the county is covered by a 24-hour firefighter, Zittrouer said. Rincon has five such firefighters and the county has four around the clock, out of a pool of 12 to 16 24-hour firefighters.
“It’s getting harder and harder to get volunteers,” Zittrouer said.
It doesn’t help, he added, when they have to go out on medical calls. He referenced the house fire off Old Dixie Highway last month that pulled in several departments and led to Rincon firefighters going to Springfield to cover any calls there.
“When we wake them up in the middle of the night for what we had (that) night,” Zittrouer said, “a fire from 8 p.m.-4 p.m., that’s when we need them.”
Adding personnel means either adding the general fund — and likely a millage rate increase — or raising the fire fees, Mayor Barton Alderman acknowledged.
Zittrouer said a countywide chief could have a handful of chiefs in subordinate positions, all with their own individual responsibility.
“You would have more input and a better department all the way around,” he said. “When you look at a big department, they have one chief and a team of chiefs. What you have are people in administrative positions who have different tools. One specializes in budgeting, one specializes in paperwork, one specializes in hazardous materials, you have a chief dedicated to training. We don’t have that, and not one department can afford to do that.
“We’re at a standstill. We need to take a big leap.”