LEESBURG -- When Albany and Dougherty County officials held a news conference late last year to tout their improved Insurance Services Office rating, some of the numbers that came out of that meeting were staggering.
Albany Fire Chief James Carswell noted, for example, that if the Wal-Mart in Lee County just off Ledo Road were located across Ledo on the Dougherty County side of the line, the company would save around a quarter-million dollars a year in insurance costs.
While such numbers are attention-grabbing, officials in rapidly growing Lee County say they're not sufficient reason to alter the county's current fire protection services.
"What's most important to individual residents and businesses in Lee County is whether the county has full-time fire service," County Administrator Alan Ours said. "Early in the last decade the county took a big leap of faith and chose to fund full-time fire service and to expand to include new fire/EMS stations at Leesburg, Century and Redbone (districts).
"This service requires significant financial resources, and the board has chosen to expand coverage first rather than attempt to lower its ISO rating."
An area's ISO rating, based on such factors as the capability, manpower and equipment of its fire department, proximity to water and emergency dispatch capability, is a key factor in determining the rates insurance companies charge individuals and businesses for structures on their property.
Most of Lee County was under a 10 ISO rating -- the lowest rating on the Insurance Services Office's scale, indicating, essentially, no fire coverage -- until the county's recent decision to replace its all-volunteer department with full-time service and expand its coverage with four fully staffed stations.
A fifth station, located in the northern portion of the county near Smithville, is currently under construction.
The improvements lowered much of the county's rating -- especially in the expanding southern portion -- to a 6, cutting insurance premiums considerably. That, Lee County Commissioner Rick Muggridge says, has brought sufficient relief to many citizens in the county.
"You have to realize, not that long ago there wasn't a full-time fire department in the county," Muggridge, an insurance agent, said. "Based on what I've heard from our citizens, they'd rather hold the line on fire service and make greater financial investments in other areas.
"I think the expectation is that the county provide fire protection, which it does. I know the fire department is understaffed, but they certainly have a good record. They supply good value for the tax dollars spent, and that's the key to what we try to do in the county. We want to give our citizens top value for their tax dollars."
On any given day, Lee Fire Chief James Howell works with a staff of eight certified firefighters. Manpower issues are a constant, but Howell is fully aware of the budget constraints that tie the hands of the Lee County Commission.
"We're at a comfortable level with the equipment we have, but we're lacking in manpower right now," the chief said. "But we're also aware that there are other pressing needs in the county. I don't want to oversimplify, but the approach we take is that we emphasize quality over quantity."
Howell said possible fixes for his staff woes have surfaced over the years, including the implementation of a fire tax, the recruitment of volunteers to augment his numbers and the utilization of consolidated firefighter/Emergency Medical Technician personnel to replace the current separate staffs.
County Commissioner Dennis Roland pushed a proposal that would have utilized the latter concept, a proposal that he says would have saved the county enough money in the last three years to pay for the extra manpower that will be needed when the Smithville station comes on line later this year.
"A study we commissioned showed that the first year we had a fully cross-trained staff (of firefighters/EMTs), we'd save somewhere between $300,000 and $400,000," Roland said. "Other commissioners indicated they were more worried about the county employees we had, but I feel that my main obligation is to the taxpayers of the county.
"I'm not out to see anyone lose their job, but if we can save that kind of money, wouldn't it better serve the taxpayers? If we'd mandated cross-training three or four years ago, we wouldn't be trying to come up with a way to fund the Smithville station now."
But those who oppose such a tactic say it's about more than saving the jobs of current employees.
"There are advantages and disadvantages (to utilizing cross-trained employees), but the biggest disadvantage I see is that if I required my trained firefighters to become certified EMTs, I'm sure I'd lose some of them," Howell said. "Our firefighters -- and the EMTs and paramedics -- made a career choice to do what they do. Many of the people who work with us and with EMS also work shifts in Albany and Dougherty County.
"We therefore have personnel with valuable training and experience, and their on-the-job knowledge benefits us greatly. I'd hate to lose that expertise."
Bobby Watkins, the director of Lee Emergency Medical Services, said he's not sure the county would realize savings under such a plan.
"First of all, even if my personnel were cross-trained, Georgia law mandates that I have the same number of people on each call," Watkins, a 31-year EMS veteran, said. "At the end of the day, I would have to have the same number of bodies. And there are other cost factors involved: You'd have to pay for the additional training, and you'd have to pay your personnel more once they receive dual certification."
Muggridge said he's not in favor of requiring county fire and EMS personnel to make a choice between maintaining their jobs or receiving additional training in a separate specialty.
"I have the greatest respect for the military, for firemen, for law enforcement personnel, for EMTs," the commissioner said. "Most of them decided what they wanted to do when they were around 7 years old. They're not going to be happy doing anything else.
"It's my understanding that there is a great deal of resistance to a plan that would require cross-training. I'm certain the director of Emergency Medical Services is against such a plan, the fire chief is not in favor of it, and rank-and-file are not in favor. That says a lot to me."
As for the savings businesses and individuals would receive with a better ISO rating, Ours says Lee County has plenty of other benefits to offer.
"I'm sure when businesses like Wal-Mart were doing their due diligence, they were aware of the differences in insurance rates in Lee and Dougherty counties," he said. "I'm also sure there are other taxes that are significantly higher in Albany-Dougherty County.
"It's all relative to what the businesses are looking for."
And, as Muggridge notes, it's also relative to what Lee County citizens are looking for.
"In our county, about 85 percent of the population has chosen to live in an unincorporated area," he said. "They knew going in that they would be giving up certain things. But in the 12 months I've been in office, the ISO rating of the county has not been an issue.
"I've gotten calls about trash pick-up, the price of water, abandoned cars ... but in that time I have not gotten one call about our ISO rating."