published Sunday, January 11th, 2009

Georgia: Department building


by Beverly Carroll
Audio clip

Chuck Nichols

  • photo
    Staff Photo by John Rawlston
    Adam Freeman, left, assists as Bryan Slatton of the Ringgold Catoosa County Fire Department participate in a training exercise about escape proceedures at Fire Hall No. 1 in Ringgold on Thursday.

Slightly more than a month after 30 volunteer firefighters turned in their equipment, the Catoosa County consolidated fire department has 75 firefighters and more than half of them volunteers.

“Our staffing is good,” Fire Chief Chuck Nichols told county commissioners last week. “We are able to answer all the calls that we get (called) out to. We are also working with mutual aid and establishing a good working relationship with other agencies, getting their help and helping them when we can.”

Last year, before commissioners voted to apply with the Georgia Firefighters Standards and Training Council to form a legally organized fire department, county fire service was provided by 50 or more long-time volunteers.

In September, the commission hired 27 full-time firefighters who worked with the active volunteers.

But after battling over many of the department changes, many of the volunteers left the service saying they were forced out.

Former volunteer Greg Warren said he and others think they were misled and misinformed about the county’s efforts.

“First they told us they were not going to change anything,” Mr. Warren said after a recent commission meeting. “Then they told us they were going to do what they wanted and we could like it or not.”

County officials said they wanted the volunteers to stay on, but required them to start from scratch, completing applications, take drug tests and be interviewed, just like other employees.

The volunteers objected to the interviews, said former volunteer Chief Chuck Gass. But County Manager Mike Helton said the interviews were an opportunity to talk about the changes and what the volunteers could expect.

Commissioner DeWayne Hill said he has been told that volunteer firefighters are being charged for their training but Chief Nichols assured him that volunteers have the same options as the career or paid employees.

“We make every arrangement we can for training and provide transportation for the training offered by the state, which is free to firefighters,” Chief Nichols said.

He said the department evaluates requests for training outside of the in-house opportunities to determine whether to reimburse or pay for firefighters. He said volunteers and paid staff have the same opportunities.

The focus this year will be on training to drive the fire engines and pumper trucks, the chief said. The department is working with the Georgia Fire Academy to create a program, and firefighters will be tested at the end.

The department will offer other specialized training as well as weekly and daily training at the fire stations for volunteers and paid staff, he said.

“Our goal is for firefighters to complete 27 hours a month of training per station, and for each firefighter to complete 12 hours a month,” Chief Nichols said.

Former volunteers have claimed that many new employee hired for pay are not state-certified to fight fires or drive the equipment.

“The state gives each firefighter a year to become certified,” said Chief Nichols, a retired Chattanooga deputy fire chief. “And we have 25 full-time employees who have achieved certification from the state training council.”

County Commission Chairman Keith Greene recently appointed a committee to oversee construction of a new, $100,000 fire station off Lakeview Drive.

Money comes from the special purpose local option sales tax, and plans call for another fire station in the same SPLOST cycle.

Critics said it’s a waste of tax dollars to build new fire stations when there are already stations in place.

The city of Fort Oglethorpe and Post Volunteer Fire Services sued the county, claiming duplication of services because the county wanted to build a station and provide service to an unincorporated area already protected under contract by Fort Oglethorpe and Post.

A Superior Court judged ordered the county to keep paying the city and Post nearly $400,000 a year to protect the eastern portion of the county until the case is settled.

County Finance Director Carl Henson said the budget doesn’t include money to pay the city and Post for 2009. He said the county plans to address that issue soon but he did not have the details.

Commissioners budgeted just under $2.3 million for the new fire department, Mr. Henson said. That includes salaries and benefits, he said.

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