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Home News-Telegram News VFD chiefs agree to 10 percent funding cut to pay fire dispatcher

VFD chiefs agree to 10 percent funding cut to pay fire dispatcher

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The 12 volunteer fire departments which serve Hopkins County will be relying more heavily on donations this year than last. Each is prepared to receive 10 percent less from the county than in the past year in order to continue to have a 24-hour county fire dispatcher.

Citing budget shortfalls, the county ceased to have a night shift fire dispatcher in July, leaving the sheriff’s dispatcher to once again handle all county law enforcement and dispatch calls between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. All fire dispatchers are certified firefighters trained for fire and rescue situations that might be called in.

Officers from the 12 county volunteer fire departments, concerned that there was no one monitoring or dispatching fire calls overnight, requested a meeting with county commissioners to address those concerns.

“They cut it out without our knowledge,” said Dutch Vallister, assistant chief for Saltillo Volunteer Fire Department. “We requested a meeting to discuss it. Not having a fire dispatch puts the county in danger.”

"We understand there are budget shortfalls and tax revenues are down,” said Cumby Volunteer Fire Department Chief David Weatherbee. “We  explained to them that we are not pointing any fingers at the sheriff’s office or anything.”

But the Cumby fire chief also maintained that more than one person is needed ot hadle all the calls that come in on  a regular basis.

“It doesn’t matter what time of day or night, we have no control over when events occur, and we have to go out,” he said. “Dispatch often needs more than one person. Sometimes they just have routine medical calls and can handle it, but sometimes it’s not just routine medical calls and more than one person is needed. One of the most important things for us out there is to have good reliable communication.”

A single dispatcher previously handled all calls, but an ever increasing number of calls and other factors led to the decision withn the past year to add a dispatcher devoted to fire calls and related emergencies.

The sheriff’s office dispatcher is simply too busy to handle county fire calls, especially in the event of multiple events, Vallister said.

“That was the  reason for the county fire dispatch,” he said. “The night shift [currently] only has one dispatcher.

“Last week, with the fire and wreck, is a real good example of why we’ve gotta have them,” he added, referring to a 12-hour period when there were two structure fires and a traffic fatality. “It's very important for the dispatcher to know what trucks are available and what’s needed.”

Mark Sustaire, Pickton-Pine Forest Volunteer Fire Department chief, said man feel it is a safety issue.

“With one dispatcher with the sheriff’s office, in the event of multiple situations — county law could be working something, then have an accident and get a fire — one dispatcher would be overworked,” he said. “We still need a fire dispatcher.”

At the end of last week’s meeting, Sustaire sad the volunteer fire chiefs were asked to vote as to whether they would surrender the 10 percent increase in stipend the county gave each department last year, with the funds specifically earmarked to go toward paying the salary for a fire dispatcher for the night shift. After each department surveyed their members, most of the county’s volunteer fire departments voted to take a cut themselves in order to have a night fire dispatcher.

The reduction in funding would cost each department approximately $60-90 a month for the volunteer fire departments, depending on apparatus. Overall, the departments would be contributing about $10,000 toward the night dispatcher’s pay, leaving the remaining portion of the fire dispatch salary to be paid by the county.

“We are getting 10 percent back from the volunteers. I can’t say where the rest will come from at this point until we finalize the budget. But there won’t be any changes in the final budget out there [at Hopkins County Fire Department] at this point,” said Judge Cletis Millsap. “We want to provide the best services we can. It’s unfortunate the rural departments are having to help out.”

Millsap said that tight economic conditions are really taking a toll across the county, and commissioners are asking all departments to look to see if there are places they can reduce costs to help out until things improve financially in the area.

“The commissioners took $50,000 out of each budget this time, so they’ll have that much less to put on the roads, to help out,” Millsap said of the four elected precinct commissioners’ effort to provide money

for the upcoming budget.

As for the county’s 12 volunteer fire departments, giving back the 10 percent county stipend increase given to them last year to help with increased fuel costs, “that’s just going to make it tighter for us,” said one. “We’re not overly rich as it is. We’ll just work harder at fundraisers and stews.”

“We hope we’re able to make up the difference in donations from individuals and industry,” said Sustaire, adding, “It would help to spread the cost out on dispatch if the Hopkins county Memorial Hospital board would move their dispatch to the county for a more centralized dispatch. Then every county entity would be housed [at the county dispatch center located at Hopkins County Intermodal facility] and share the cost. It would benefit all parties and the tax payers would foot the bill for one dispatch for the county sheriff’s office, for fire department and also EMS dispatch. Not to mention the city has it’s own dispatch, too.”

“We can’t do without a fire dispatcher. We have no choice,” said Weatherbee, the Cumby VFD chief. “We’d probably double the cut if that’s the only way to do it. Overall, it’s not a lot of money. This is not going to kill us. The most important thing is to have good, reliable communications. We’re willing to give it up, to make sacrifice to help make ends meet.”

The decision as to whether to again have a night dispatcher, and if so where the remaining funding will come from, will be determined by the county commissioners during a future budget meeting. Until then, the county fire departments will continue to be served between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. by one dispatcher trained primarily in law enforcement dispatch.




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