Outlook 2013: Lee County seeks to improve fire rating

Lee County Fire Chief James Howell, shown in February 2013 at Leesburg Fire/EMS Station No. 1, usually has 10 firefighters on duty covering 350 square miles of county each day. (Outlook 2013)

Lee County Fire Chief James Howell, shown in February 2013 at Leesburg Fire/EMS Station No. 1, usually has 10 firefighters on duty covering 350 square miles of county each day. (Outlook 2013)

LEESBURG, Ga. — One of the top topics among Lee County’s residents and political leaders this year has been the need to improve the ISO insurance ratings which determine how much Lee property owners pay for property insurance.

It wont be easy or inexpensive. Considerable manpower, training and equipment will be needed.

Lee County has five manned fire stations, which are distributed throughout the county giving close coverage for most areas.

However, the stations are manned with just two qualified firefighters.

“On any given day, I have 10 men covering 355 square miles,” said Lee County Fire Chief James Howell.

Overall, Howell has 30 full-time firefighters in addition to himself and his assistant chief. He also utilizes 15 part-time employees to fill in gaps during sickness, vacations, days off and other periods when the full-time workers are out of the fire house.

Let’s look at the five fire stations in Lee County. They include:

Leesburg: This station at just outside the city on the Leslie Highway is the headquarters facility and is responsible for the city residential and commercial areas plus all the schools and one nursing home.

Century: Just south of Century Road on U.S. Highway 19, this station covers a sizable population of the county including a concentration of houses and businesses on the south end of the county.

Palmyra: Located on Highway 82 near Turner Furniture Co., this station, Howell says, serves “probably our biggest commercial load....and probably serves the most valuable residential area in terms of high dollar property.” Firefighters at that station are the first responders to Walmart and other businesses along Ledo Road. They also cover the industrial park off Oakland Road.

Smithville: The station in the northern part of the county is located just south of Smithville on U.S. 19 North. In addition to the residents of the area, the station also provides protection for some light industry and a couple of peanut mills.

Red Bone: Located at Graves Springs Road and Philema Road, this station is responsible for residents in the area in addition to light commercial business customers down Philema Road.

There is no volunteer fire department in Lee County. Actually, the paid department evolved from a volunteer operation just more than a dozen years ago.

The best ISO fire rating property owners can get in Lee County is 6 on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the worst. Some of the county qualifies for a rating of either 9 or 10.

Those who enjoy a rating of six must be located within five “road” miles of a fire station and be within 1,000 feet of a fire hydrant.

“You can qualify for a nine if you are within five miles of a station but no water is available,’ Howell said. “That means we have to take water to a fire and insurance companies look upon that as a tremendous disadvantage.”

Howell said his firefighters try to carry at least 7,000 gallons of water on the initial response to those areas without a water source.

Those with a rating of 10 are not within five road miles of a fire station, nor do they have a water supply.

For comparison purposes, much of Dougherty County has a fire rating of two.

“There is definitely an attraction for businesses to have a low ISO rating,” Howell said. “If not, why has Albany spent millions to lower their rating? They were already a three and lowered that. They have one of the better ratings around.

“There is a reason they are spending on fire protection and it’s not just the spending. They (fire protection) get a higher percentage of the SPLOST spending and a higher percentage of the annual tax base.

Lee County Administrator Tony Massey says Lee County allocates $2.05 million of its $22 million budget for fire protection — a little less than 10 percent.

“The county commission is very interested in fire protection countywide,” said Massey. “This has been voiced already by more than one commissioner and expect as we go forward that it will be given a hard look by officials.”

Dennis Roland, vice chairman of the Lee County Commission, is an advocate of improved fire protection.

Improvements are needed “for us to stay competitive with Dougherty County on commercial growth,” he said.

Representatives of Steve Perrine’s State Farm Insurance agency in Albany listed some rates for a randomly-chosen $257,000 brick home in both Albany and Lee County for comparison.

The house in Lee County with some discounts applied would require an annual premium of $975. The same house in Albany, where the rating is 2, would carry a premium of $885.

The major differences come into play with the Lee County homes with a fire rating of 10. That same house in those areas of Lee County would have an annual premium of $1,900.

Training is virtually impossible, Howell said. A training facility was in a previous SPLOST budget, but the facility has never been funded.

And, with only two men at a station, it would be difficult to allow anyone to leave to get the training.

“Unfortunately, we rarely hire a new, untrained firefighter,’ Howell said. I have to hire someone who already has some training. I may have a young man in Lee County who wants a career in firefighting, but if he has no training I cannot hire him.”

Howell also has an aging fleet of firetrucks. The mid-grade of trucks utilized in Lee County cost about $250,000 each and as much as another $100,000 to fully equip.

“The majority of equipment we have is already over half of its expected life,” Howell said. “I don’t want to have to replace all of this at one time. The costs go up year after year, and I don’t mean in small increments.”

A key to having more funds for firefighting is commercial growth, Howell said.

“Places like Walmart with its more than $3 million tax base is what pays for these firemen. If you build the commercial base you can put more firemen, more emergency medical personnel and more deputies in these less populated areas of the county.”

Howell said the load cannot be on residential property owners. Doing so, he said, would “tax them to death.”

The best way to provide service is through sales tax, and you cannot have the sales tax if you do not attract businesses,” he said.