County ready to improve fire safety

From Editor Duwayne Escobedo:

With dozens of volunteer and career firefighters in the audience at today’s Escambia County Commission meeting, all five commissioners expressed support for recommendations from a citizens committee that would put the county’s fire-rescue chief over volunteer and career firefighter operations and centralize other operations.

Commissioners Mike Whitehead and Grover Robinson were the most outspoken in support of the suggested changes to the county’s current outdated, troubled dual system with volunteer firefighters and paid firefighters operating separately and autonomously.

The biggest impediment to going forward with revamping fire protection with the aim to create a more efficient and effective department is a county contract with the Escambia County Volunteer Firefighter Association.

Although Assistant County Administrator Willie Taylor pointed out two areas in the contract where the county could implement the new system, County Attorney Janet Lander disagreed.

Lander says the county would have to renegotiate with volunteer firefighters about changing the organizational structure and if an agreement could not be reached the county would have to wait until September 2008 when the contract ends. She confirmed that the contract—which has been the subject of much criticism for being very weak for the county—has no clause that allows the county to terminate it without finding a breach of the contract by the volunteers.

The Clerk of the Court and Comptroller official says a draft audit of payments, or stipends, paid to volunteers is ready. It might show violations of the agreement for paying volunteers and, therefore, could cancel the current contract.

It looks as if volunteers are prepared to fight the changes with Steve McNair, the Beulah volunteer chief and volunteer association president, submitting a letter to the county of “no confidence” in Escambia County Fire-Rescue Chief Ken Perkins taking full authority and control over operations.

Whitehead and Robinson urged for volunteers to work with the county in the best interest of taxpayers, homeowners and fire safety.

“It’s incumbent on all of us to find a way to work together and create some unity,” Robinson says. Adds Whitehead: “We have to do what we have to do to make it work. We have to do it in good faith.”

Steven Barry, who was Fire Services Citizens Advisory Committee chairman, says he hopes the recommendations, including the creating and hiring of a volunteer coordinator liason to help in the transition, will be implemented by October.

“I’d be disappointed if the county’s contract prevented this until next year. I think the volunteers see the consensus by the board and committee members.”

Taylor says other counties, such as Marion, have advised Escambia County too move quickly with a combination department that has volunteers and career firefighters all answering to the county’s fire chief, instead of station’s individual volunteer fire chiefs.

“They said there will be bumps in the road, with some volunteers not wanting to participate,” Taylor tells commissioners.