Better Funding, Staffing Helps North Carolina County Fire Departments Improve Response Times

In 2015, amid a national slide in volunteerism, Cleveland County had fewer than 400 volunteer fire fighters across its 12 departments. None of the departments had any staffing during the daytime.

Changes help improve insurance ratings in Cleveland County

Dustin George, The Star, Shelby, N.C.

(MCT)

Jun. 7—Five years ago, a person out in rural Cleveland County would be lucky if their call of a serious fire or automobile accident was answered in under an hour. Today, that time is down to about eight minutes and closer to five minutes in some areas.

The change is a result of a years-long effort by Cleveland County officials to better fund and staff each of the 12 volunteer fire departments around the county.

In 2015, amid a national slide in volunteerism, Cleveland County had fewer than 400 volunteer fire fighters across its 12 departments. None of the departments had any staffing during the daytime.

At the urging of the state’s volunteer firefighting commission, the county Board of Commissioners approved a study, headed by then-fire chief and current commissioner Kevin Gordon, to determine what needs the county’s volunteer stations had.

“This document provided an opportunity to take an in-depth look at the short-, mid- and long-term need of these communities,” said Gordon.

In 2016, commissioners approved a five-year plan to address 18 priorities local stations had, from staffing and infrastructure to equipment replacement and training.

“The first thing we had to address was funding,” said Brian Epley, county manager.

In 2016 the county tax rates for volunteer fire services was five cents. By increasing the rate to 8.75 cents, the county was able to provide each station with $120,000 to cover having two people at each station each day as well as new equipment purchases.

The extra money also allows the county to operate a stipend system for volunteer firemen. Fire fighters get $10 for each call they respond to.

According to Epley simply having people on hand to respond to calls made a drastic impact on call response times.

“It’s staggering when you look at the decrease in average response time during the day. It went down from nearly an hour to less than five minutes,” said Epley. “Because think about it; when a call went out three or four years ago somebody had to get the call, leave work or leave school, get to the fire station, get in the apparatus and then go. Versus just being there ready.”

Over time, the decrease in response time, coupled with new equipment at stations and some county-wide efforts to improve fire hydrant placement, saw many insurance companies upgrade the county’s rating for homeowner insurance.

“As a cumulative way of speaking, the increase in tax when you multiply it across the total number in households and then compare that to the average homeowner’s property insurance savings and it actually generates net returns cumulatively of about $200,000 to our community,” said Epley.

Moving forward

With the original five-year plan coming to an end in 2021, nearly all of the 18 priorities commissioners set have been met.

We are ecstatic about where we are in relative to the 18 on the study,” said Gordon. “There are still a few long term priorities on there, fire hydrants for example. The departments and the county don’t really control those, but we are working with developers and with the water system on that.”

In February, commissioners requested a study and five-year plan for emergency services, EMS and law enforcement. That survey will begin in fall 2021.

“Really collectively looking at public safety as a whole and asking what should we be prioritizing,” said Epley.

The decision to broaden the scope of the upcoming plan stems from the anticipated opening of the Two Kings Casino Resort and growing trends in housing and population in the county.

Ahead of that survey, the county is already aware of some needs it will have in the coming years, including new courthouse, jail and 911 facilities.

Dustin George can be reached at 704-669-3337 or Dustin.George@ShelbyStar.com.

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