November 01, 2012
It looks like the county isn't going to get a Guilford County
fire department after all. However, many changes and a standardization of the county's fire services are supposedly on the way.
About a year ago, Emergency Services Consulting International (ESCI) presented the Guilford County
Board of Commissioners with the findings of its countywide fire services study that offered, as one option, combining 20 fire departments into a Guilford County
fire department that would cover the county, excluding Greensboro, High Point and Gibsonville.
That possibility, which caused a great deal of angst among county fire chiefs and firefighters, now seems dead in the water. However, in the wake of the study, a solid year of major talks among fire chiefs, and a county committee formed to look into the subject, some major changes have now been announced. In fact, some changes in the county's fire services have already taken place.
Last week, Summerfield Fire District Chief Chris Johnson, chairman of a committee of the county's fire chiefs, sent county officials an update on the changes that will include a standardization of accountability measures, a shared county-wide database of fire service information, and new more economical ways the departments can act collectively rather than individually – as has often been the case in the past.
Two years ago, the county hired ESCI and paid the consulting firm $90,000 for a detailed study of Guilford County
's fire services. When the fire chiefs saw that one option ESCI presented was a consolidation of all the fire departments, the chiefs pushed back, and some county officials objected to the idea as well.
Commissioner Billy Yow, for instance, said at that time that, if the county took over fire services and ran it the same way it ran everything else, then county residents could pretty much count on their houses burning to the ground any time a fire started.
Pleasant Garden Fire Chief Ray Smith, the designated spokesman for the chiefs, said this week that the study – though it caused concerns among many fire officials – turned out to be a good thing.
He said the study became a starting point for a lot of healthy dialogue between the county's fire districts, which are now seeking ways to work together in a more cohesive fashion, standardize operations and cut costs by sharing manpower and resources and by purchasing firefighting equipment in bulk.
Smith said this week that some of the changes agreed upon by the departments proved to be no-brainers.
"From what we've done as a group, we all recognized that there are some low-hanging fruits," he said.
He said some changes had already taken place.
"Collectively, a lot has been done," he said. "The study provided us a great tool; it started a conversation. We asked, 'How can we be better?'"
Smith said some changes needed to be made in light of limited fire department funds due to the dismal economy.
"The economy is driving so much – well, it's not driving so much, the economy is driving everything," he said.
There are also changes coming from the county's side of the equation. In the past, according to many county officials, Guilford County
's contract with the fires districts has lacked adequate performance benchmarks. However, that's set to change soon.Guilford County
Attorney Mark Payne said he has sent a draft of a proposed, standardized new contract to all of the county's fire districts for review. Payne, for one, has said all along that the county's existing contracts with the fire departments needed more performance standards in place.
The Guilford County
Board of Commissioners hasn't approved the new contract, but the commissioners are scheduled to discuss it, along with the fire chiefs findings and recommendations, at a Thursday, Nov. 15 Board of Commissioners work session.
The proposed contract calls for the 23 fire departments that serve Guilford County
to meet well defined performance measures – such as response times to calls – that would be standard across departments. Three of those departments, the ones which serve Greensboro, High Point and Gibsonville, each cover a small area of Guilford County
territory and therefore they also have a contract with the county for those areas.
The chiefs also recognized a need for this in their committee talks.
"Currently," the fire chiefs report to county officials states, "there are only a few benchmarks in place by the county that holds [sic] fire departments accountable for certain actions. Even though most fire departments have internal benchmarks such as annual independent CPA audits, monthly financial reviews, and public Board of Directors elections, we feel there is still very little from the county level."
The fire districts are also asking the county for more money in the budget next year and in coming years citing the rising cost of fuel, insurance and equipment.
The report also states that the departments are taking steps to address manpower challenges. In a bad economy, it states, it's harder to get people to volunteer for fire service, so fire officials have been working together to address that problem. For instance, this summer, the departments collectively applied for and got a grant that provides money to help volunteer fire departments recruit new firefighters. That grant will be used to establish a countywide fire protection webpage, as well as to advertise for volunteers at high school sporting events, movie theaters and elsewhere.
The money will also be used to create a documentary about fire services that will be shown on local cable channels.
In another effort to unify the fire district operations, fire officials intend to establish a countywide record management system that brings all the departments and emergency services under one database. That would mean additional paid positions.
"All departments currently have to report calls to the state every year and some departments are not able to do this because of staffing limitations," the report states. "Having paid support positions maintaining this database and infrastructure would ensure that all reports for all departments are submitted to the state each year."
Those reports are important when the fire departments attempt to get grant dollars for various projects. More detailed and accurate reports should also help those departments study their emergency response procedures.
The fire stations are also exploring ways to work together in the future when buying equipment and supplies – as well as sharing what they already own. One committee of fire officials has compiled an extensive list of the equipment each fire agency possesses, along with a description of every item and its age.
The chiefs are also attempting to standardize training, and other aspects of the county's fire services – including adopting a standard helmet color for each position level in every fire department countywide.
Though the chiefs' recent report was generally positive with regard to the ESCI study, it also stated, "the general consensus was that the ESCI report failed in a lot of areas." ...continued on page 2