DOWN EAST — The county is exploring the consolidation of three fire departments that are struggling to keep the necessary number of volunteers on their rosters.
Officials are looking at Atlantic, Stacy and Sea Level fire stations. Under the proposal, which is still in the discussion phase, the Atlantic fire district would be expanded to include the areas of the other two departments. The Stacy department would be made a substation and the Sea Level department would be eliminated. In addition to solving staffing issues, the plan is also expected to lower homeowners’ insurance ratings in Sea Level and Stacy.
The current proposal would not make any changes to Sea Level EMS.
However, not everyone is receptive to the idea. Phillip Laxton, the chief of Sea Level Fire and EMS, said he believes there would still be a struggle to get volunteers and doubted the change would help insurance costs.
Emergency Services Director Jo Ann Smith said each department must have a roster of 20, a state requirement. That’s proving to be difficult. “Because the communities are so small, and the population is mostly older, it’s hard to get those volunteers to bring the rosters up to the numbers to be certified through the state,” she said.
If the county eliminated the Sea Level Fire Department, the Atlantic Fire Department would need 20 members for the central station plus an additional eight for the Stacy substation.
Stacy and Sea Level should also benefit by getting the same Insurance Services Office fire rating as Atlantic. Currently, Atlantic has an ISO rating of 6, while the other two departments have ratings of 9. The ISO inspects fire districts for their ability to respond to disasters, such as the equipment they have and a department’s ability to get to a fire quickly, as well as the training records of the members. The office then rates the district. The lower the number, the better the service.
Insurance companies then use that information to determine how much residents should pay in homeowners’ insurance.
The County Fire and EMS Commission discussed this topic during its February meeting. According to the unofficial minutes of that meeting, the lower rating would save the owner of a $130,000 house about $300 a year in homeowners’ insurance.
Commission members, at the Feb. 13 meeting, also said the consolidation would also help the fire district tax rates in those communities. The commission unanimously voted to recommend Ms. Smith’s office continues with the investigation.
Ms. Smith said the Sea Level fire station is also in a low-lying area and is prone to flooding during hurricanes. “They’ve had to go in and make huge repairs because they had such water in their building,” she said.
Chief Laxton of Sea Level, however, said he has mixed feelings about the proposal. He said the Sea Level department is the only one Down East that has a paid staff. In all, he said, he has seven paid members, though the fire and EMS departments are joined here, so the employees work on both sides.
“I think if you eliminate the paid people from the mix, you are taking a situation that is bad and making it worse,” Mr. Laxton said.
Paid staff, he said, can volunteer for other departments, so they can be counted on two rosters, he said. For example, if a call goes out and a Sea Level employee is on duty, that employee can respond as a member of the Sea Level Fire Department. If that person is not on duty, the worker can respond as a volunteer for one of the other departments.
So, if the fire department aspects were removed from the job description for those employees at Sea Level, then they would only be able to respond to EMS calls when on duty.
Unpaid volunteers can only be counted on one roster, Chief Laxton said.
He added he has received several calls from people in the community asking why they are losing their fire department. “It’s not a done deal,” the chief said. “They just need to let their (county) commissioner know how they feel.”
The fire and EMS commission is scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. Monday in the commissioners’ boardroom in the administration building. The agenda wasn’t set at presstime, so it was unknown whether this item was scheduled for discussion.
The final decision rests with the County Board of Commissioners.
Ms. Smith said there isn’t a set timeline for the proposal, but hoped a decision would come as quickly as possible.