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Volunteerism is key for Roane County’s five fire departments, but the field of those willing to step forward is diminishing.
“We’re down to 12 guys who can run calls,” said James Grant, chief of South Roane County Volunteer Fire Department. “We had roughly 85 people when I came on 11 years ago.”
Though the numbers differ, fire chiefs of the county’s other departments echo that problem. According to Grant, it’s a crunch felt everywhere.
“You can Google it,” he said. “It’s a nationwide thing. People just don’t want to volunteer as much.”
That’s one of the issues that prompted Roane County Commission’s fire board to request an assessment of the five departments.
“I think we need to know where we’re at and where we’re going,” said Commissioner Carolyn Granger, who sits on the fire board. “I need more information to make an informed decision when I vote.”
The assessment, to be performed by the University of Tennessee County Technical Assistance Service
and Roane County Emergency Management Agency, is intended to be an independent study to show county leaders the strengths and weaknesses of each department, including fire stations, equipment and personnel.
Also to be studied are the two paid firefighter positions created under an earlier administration. The commission added 2 cents to the property-tax rate several years ago to fund the positions and other improvements, and county officials hope the assessment will bear out the results of those investments.
“We’re on the right track with this assessment, and I want to keep it positive,” said Commissioner Chris Johnson, who sits on the fire board. “This is to make our county better. It’s not to place blame.”
The paid positions have created some strife among volunteers, a Tuesday fire board meeting revealed. Labor laws prohibited the men hired for those jobs to serve as volunteer firefighters as originally intended. That, according to the chiefs and volunteer firefighters at the meeting, created tension for the volunteers, most of whom hold down full-time jobs and fight fires after work hours.
“There were some unintended consequences from the decisions that were made,” Roane County Executive Ron Woody said. “We’ve really got to see what direction the whole fire operation goes.”
The decision to add the paid positions stemmed from discussion with The Roane Alliance President Leslie Henderson, said Howie Rose, emergency management director. Rose said Henderson was concerned that the ISO rating, a fire protection classification, was a deterrent to companies interested in moving to the county. The tax increase to pay for the positions, added hydrants and other fire protection for all the departments improved the rating and has helped with attracting companies to Roane Regional Business and Technology Park, he added.
Part of the assessment will be to formulate a five- and 10-year plan for fire service, a move Woody said can go in tandem with the 10-year land-use plan county officials are beginning to look at.
The plan, he added, will help determine potential growth areas and give the fire departments a glimpse into the levels of protection they need to provide. East Roane County Chief David Maupin, whose department is responsible for Roane Regional’s service, said that’s something he would appreciate.
Woody and fire board members assured the five department representatives that they are anxious to work with them, and they hope the study will help them do just that.
Woody, for one, said he’s been approached at church by South of the River residents worrying that stations are or will be closed.
That’s a rumor Grant said he wants to put to rest.
“None of our stations are closed,” he said.