Lee County Manager Ron Rabun, left, and Commission Chairman Rick Muggridge listen to a presentation by consultant Skip Starling. Tuesday night’s session was the first regular meeting for Rabun. (Staff Photo: Danny Carter)
LEESBURG — Lee County continues to look for a few good men and women to man their soon-to-be-revived volunteer fire department.
The revival of that department is vital to the County Commission’s goal of improving fire safety and lowering insurance rates, according to Skip Starling of National Fire Services Office.
Starling was hired about six months ago to advise county commissioners on how to improve its firefighting force.
Since then, Starling has guided the commission to create a Department of Public Safety, merging firefighters and Emergency Medical Services personnel. It allows EMS staffers to be trained to fight fires, effectively doubling the fire staff at each of the county’s five fire stations.
Starling also has implemented computer training of EMS personnel to go with hands-on training by Fire Chief James Howell.
The call for volunteers has not gone as well as some county officials had hoped.
“Years ago, the county had a fully functioning volunteer department,” Starling said Tuesday in his report to Lee County commissioners and new County Manager Ron Rabun. “An idea was developed that as long as the county had volunteers, career firefighters would not be hired. Today, we have career firefighters and no volunteer firefighters.
“This idea is still embedded because the CERT-EMA has volunteers, yet there are no firefighter volunteers. Volunteer firefighters are a tremendous resource, which are needed. It will be a long, hard process to bring them back.”
EMS Director Bobby Watkins says the volunteer department could get a huge boost from the 49 EMTs in the county.
Of that number, Watkins says about 24 have indicated some level of interest in becoming volunteer firefighters when off their regular, paid duty.
Starling said the volunteer force, when formed, would be a separate battalion, which calls for a separate battalion chief. That volunteer position should be paid a small stipend, Starling said, because of the responsibility involved.
Starling says the county has seven fire engines, including two that need to be replaced as soon as possible.
He also recommends the reopening of two Chokee fire stations that have been abandoned over the years. Those stations would be manned by volunteers and/or EMS personnel who would volunteer when they are off duty as EMS.
Rick Muggridge, chairman of the Lee County Commission, said he expects the board to purchase two used engines during the next 60 days.
Muggridge said Starling “is close to the end of his mission” in Lee County, but that he expects him to assist in finding the used fire engines.
He also expects him to help finalize a restructuring of the Department of Public Safety.
For example, Starling has recommended that each shift have a battalion chief on duty.
Although they work as needed 24 hours a day, the existing fire chief and assistant chief are scheduled Monday through Friday, Starling said.
“A chief of some sort should be available 24/7 on any event, at any time, any day,” Starling said. “There are captains on every shift that could fulfill these positions.”
Muggridge said a restructuring will continue with looking at positions such as training officers, public education officer and inspectors.
” I don’t think we’ll do anything for the next couple of weeks to give Ron (new county manager) a chance to digest this and learn the personalities, but I do see a bit of restructuring.”
Muggridge also said he envisions getting the two Chokee stations — one at Philema Road and New York Road and another off Highway 195 — operational and staffed by volunteers.
“I don’t think you’ll see us buy any property within the next 60 days,” Muggridge said.
Starling has proposed up to three new substations in an effort to provide a station within five miles for the majority of Lee County residents.
Lee County property owners currently have fire ratings ranging from 6 to 10, with 10 being the poorest and most expensive. The goal, Starling said, is to reduce the rating for as many of those with a 10 rating as possible.
Muggridge said anyone wanting to learn more about becoming a volunteer can call the commission office at (229) 759-6000 or visit any fire station.