SMITHVILLE -- It's been a long time coming, but the people in this small community will be able to rest a little easier starting Oct. 4 when the county's new fire/EMS station, located a couple of miles from the downtown area, opens for service.
The Lee County Commission took care of some last-minute funding matters recently to pave the way for the opening.
"There were just a few items left that we'd waited for hoping that the construction cost would run a little under and we could use those funds," Fire Chief James Howell said Sunday. "It didn't work out, so we went to the commission to ask that the funding be approved."
Howell said the last-minute items included turnout gear for the firefighters, an ice machine, radio dispatch equipment and barriers that staff will install to protect the fire station and equipment.
Lee Commission Chairman Ed Duffy said the opening of the new station is part of the commission's ongoing efforts to protect the safety and well-being of the citizens of the county.
"With the completion of this station and the addition of the fire/EMS station on (U.S. Highway) 82, we've added 40 percent more protection for the citizens of the county with no tax increase," Duffy said. "The station was built two miles south of Smithville on land donated by John Haley to include as many residents in the five-mile radius that will improve their ISO rating.
"The people in the area will see their ISO rating drop from a 9 to a 6, thus lowering their insurance rates."
While workers are completing a few punch-list items on the facility, 10 new full-time employees -- four paramedics, three firefighters and three firefighter/EMTs -- are being added to the county's staff. The full-time employees and other part-time help needed to operate the station added $610,833 to the county's budget.
The overall price tag for the facility, including the purchase of a new ambulance and firetruck, is at $869,054.27.
"There are some people in the southern part of the county who say (the station) benefits only the citizens near it, but it actually benefits the entire county," Howell said. "If there is an emergency call (in the Smithville area) now, our people in the southern portion of the county must respond. That leaves us vulnerable if there is an emergency there.
"The opening of the station will mean a tremendous improvement on response time. I can't imagine waiting the time it takes emergency personnel to respond to that region with that long of a ride. From our position, we're rarely able to save anything, and it puts my personnel in more danger."
Commissioner Dennis Roland, whose district includes Smithville, said Sunday he's pleased to see a facility finally open in the northern portion of the county.
"The way I see it, that's one down and three more to go," Roland said. "I've been saying for a long time that what we need most in the county is more fire/EMS coverage, and if I am returned to office (in the Nov. 2 general election) that's what I'll continue to work for."
Funding for the fire/EMS station and its equipment came primarily from Special-Purpose Local-Option Sales Tax IV and V allocations.
"Once the board got the 82 fire station in place, we decided to move ahead with getting the Smithville station open," Duffy said. "There were allocated funds in SPLOST IV, so we started working on this project immediately."