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Guyton City Council still pondering fire protection options
Fire departemtn

GUYTON -- The alarm at the Guyton Fire Department and throughout the city it serves is growing louder.

During a special called meeting for the second straight night Thursday, the Guyton City Council discussed the Guyton Fire Department's dire staffing problems. The situation grew worse Thursday when Andy Harville turned in his gear, leaving the department with just three firefighters.

"They don't care about y'all," Harville told the audience during the public comments portion of the meeting.

Harville's decision to quit was prompted by the council's decision not to merge immediately with Effingham County Fire & Rescue. Council members received a contract proposal from the Effingham County Board of Commissioners Wednesday night and spent Thursday perusing it.

At the start of Thursday's meeting, the Mayor Jeff Lariscy said, "We have started looking at many options and one of them is to increase our own department so we are going to be looking at opportunities to do that. But we will continue to talk to the county and perhaps other municipalities in the county to maybe partner on some services as well. But as a council, we have decided that, right now, the agreement that we have been presented is not desirable for us to pursue and will pursue other options including, as I said, working with our own department to increase their personnel while still working with the county and other municipalities as we can for the betterment of our fire department and the protection of our citizens."

Lariscy and county officials started working on preliminary agreement last week. It was patterned on the one Effingham County Fire & Rescue has with the City of Springfield, which sold its firefighting equipment to the county. The proposal for Guyton is a lease arrangement.

Lariscy and the rest of the council were taken aback Thursday by the county's proposal to lease Guyton's fire station and equipment for $2 per year.

"There are several issues with it that we have identified," the mayor said.

Lariscy also mentioned language in the proposal that would negate "inequities of the past" in reference to a service area agreement with Effingham County that ended last year.

Currently, the Guyton Fire Department has one paid firefighter who works 8 a.m.-5 p.m. and two volunteers. Effingham County has proposed manning the department with two firefighters around the clock without increasing the cost of fire protection for Guyton residents. 

Guyton's current fire fee is $100 annually per residence. The council has discussed raising the fee to $240 annually to help meet its staffing needs, an option that most members of the crowd at Wednesday and Thursday's meeting find unpalatable.

After issuing his statement, Lariscy called for a motion to adjourn. At that point, Skip Starling, a national firefighting consultant with 35 years of firefighting experience, asked to speak. The former Guyton Fire Department member, Effingham County Fire & Rescue designer and ISO expert urged the council to accept the county's offer.

Guyton's current ISO rating is 4. The council, however, has been warned that it will rise to 10   -- the worst level -- if it continues to struggle to get the proper number of firefighters to emergency scenes. The higher ISO rating would result in huge increases in fire insurance costs for residents. It could possibly result in the loss of insurance coverage entirely.

Starling disputed the mayor's contention early in Thursday's meeting that Guyton's ISO rating isn't in immediate danger of rising.

"I've only had two (established departments) go to a 10 in 35 years  -- and that's Pelham, Georgia, and here," Starling said. 

Starling said the Guyton Fire Department was designed with the intent of eventually merging with Effingham County Fire & Rescue.

"... Dealing with ISO as a bigger group is much more efficient than trying to do it and battling on your own. That is so difficult," he said.

Using Springfield as an example, Starling also cited costs concerns.

He said, "The city was able to, all of a sudden, have this refreshed feeling that they don't have to worry about whether the motor blows up in that fire engine that costs $22,000  or if the pump blows that costs $12,000 because the county has to burden that."

Starling said Guyton has a special place in his heart and he wants what is best for it. He represented the City of Guyton in a legal dispute with Effingham County over fire matters years ago, he said.

"Everybody thinks if you have ownership of a fire department that you've done something," he said. "It just means that you have created a debt for yourself. There is no magic to it."

 He told the council that fire department autonomy might be worth considering if Guyton had a strong commercial base like Rincon.

"Their financial status is so different," he said. "They have so much money because they have so much going on. Here, we are just a wonderful bedroom community. That's what we are.

"We don't have industry. We have people who live here because it is a great place to live and it has always been that way."

Harville was exasperated by the council's inaction. He quit as a Guyton volunteer firefighter 20 minutes before Thursday's meeting started. He tried to plop his equipment on the council's desk in front of Post 4's Michael Johnson but was stopped.

"These last two days have probably been some of the most asinine stuff I've ever seen," Harville said. "Unfortunately, (Guyton residents) are going to have to suffer for it."

Most in the crowed nodded in agreement with Harville.

"Unfortunately -- and I hate to say it -- if your house catches on fire. It's going to burn down," he said. "It's plain and simple. That's the bottom line."