Martin fire chief explains policy

Martin fire chief explains policy

Posted: Monday, October 11, 2010 9:19 pm

By SABRINA BATES
Special to The Messenger
What do $600,000; $13,000; $34,000; $1,100; and $3,000 have in common?
The total amount combined is the amount of expenses for the Martin Fire Department to be able to respond to a single structure fire, according to Fire Chief Russell Schwahn.
If all 1,800 people living outside of the city limits of Martin and within the MFD’s coverage area paid their $100 annual rural fire fee, then $180,000 could be added to the general fund for the department’s expenses. As it remains today, only 1,200 to 1,300 of those billed actually pay the subscription.
With such a small amount of rural subscribers pitching in toward the MFD’s annual budget, the operating costs don’t seem to justify covering the rural runs.
But in the chief’s eyes, those calls are just as valuable as calls made within the city limits.
“We are going to go and not check a list. I am not saying that what we do in Martin is the right way, but it seems to work for us at this particular time,” he said.
Just as recently as two years ago, the City of Martin changed its operating policy regarding rural fire calls due to such a low number of rural subscribers, Schwahn said. If a homeowner living outside the city limits pays his rural fire subscription of $100 and the MFD is called to his home to extinguish the fire, the homeowner’s insurance company is billed $750. If the homeowner hasn’t paid the $100 subscription and the department is called to his home to extinguish a fire, the homeowner is billed $2,500. Perhaps the homeowner fails to pay the $100 or the $2,500; then the city has the option to take that person to small claims court in an effort to recoup $2,500. At the same time, the city would spend much more than that tying the process into the court system.
These situations are just some of the scenarios that rear its head from time to time throughout Weakley County, where many of the municipalities have a rural fire subscription program.
Schwahn explained the Martin policy when South Fulton’s municipal ordinance regarding rural fire subscriptions came under question after a home burned to the ground there. Firefighters were unable to respond to Gene Cranick’s home on Sept. 29 since he did not pay his annual $75 rural fire subscription fee.
“This is a no-win situation. If you respond to the fire and put it out even though he didn’t pay, you would upset your people that live in the city limits whose taxes pay for the bulk of expenses. If you don’t put out the house fire, you end up facing what the South Fulton Fire Department is dealing with,” Schwahn said.
The situation has certainly been an emotional one that has hit close to home for Schwhan and his department members.
“We’re in the business of fighting fires. No firefighter wants to go to a home and watch it burn. Could you imagine how sick those guys felt? Those guys shouldn’t be forced to make that decision,” he added.
Because of South Fulton’s ordinance, the department was told to stand down by city manager Jeff Vowell and not extinguish the blaze at the Cranicks’ home.
“It is my job to fight the battles higher up on the political scale for this department. I wouldn’t ask my guys to make a decision like that. We are going to go to that fire and put it out and we’re not going to check a list before we do it. I think we have a good system in this city, though the mayor and board of aldermen understand that we should go and try to fight fires outside of the city limits,” Schwahn said.
Since 2006, Schwahn and his department have garnered $1.2 million in federal grant money. According to Schwahn, county taxpayers have helped fund these grants.
Schwahn encourages everyone to continue to pay their rural fire fees, however, because of the limits it places on his department when a rural page is issued.
When the department is paged out for a rural call, an “all-call” must be issued within the city, which requests off-duty personnel and volunteer firefighters to stand by at the firehouses in town in the event of another emergency.
“I have to have someone here. I cannot leave the city unprotected when we go out,” Schwahn said.
Since Jan. 1, the department has responded to 167 rural calls. That number grows every year.
“This really is a county issue. People should call their county commissioners and ask them to consider enacting a county-wide fire service,” Schwahn said.
As daunting as that task may seem for the county, Schwahn said a large portion of operating costs could be funded through a grant.
The Martin fire chief was asked recently to sit on a grant peer review panel as a representative of Tennessee.
“I know the money is out there. We talked about it in Baltimore (Md.) when I was there. … The money would pay for manpower, which opens you up for equipment grants. It can be done and the taxpayers would save money as a result of it. The response time for rural fires would be shorter because the manpower would grow,” Schwahn said.
As a result, homeowner’s insurance policies could decrease with lower ISO ratings for the county.
“I think we need to have a meeting of the Weakley County Fire Chiefs Association, county commissioners and members of surrounding counties that have a county-wide fire service in place,” Schwahn suggested. But it cannot be accomplished without the taxpayers getting on board and participating in their county government.
Gibson and Madison counties operate a county-wide fire service as well as municipal fire departments.
While the burn is still felt in South Fulton over the issue of the Cranick home, Schwahn issued a different type of “all-call” Friday when he requested all members of the “brotherhood of firefighters” meet him on the county line between Martin and South Fulton.
“These same men and women firefighters everyone has been bashing, insulting and threatening are the same ones that have gotten up at 1 a.m. to go and put fires out inside the city of South Fulton before and will continue to do so after all the national news has went on to other stories,” Schwahn said.
Unfortunately, Schwahn canceled the show of solidarity after he and his firefighters began receiving death threats.
Editor’s note: Sabrina Bates is editor at The Weakley County Press.

Published in The Messenger 10.11.10

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