Difficult decisions ahead regarding fire coverage in Lee County

These houses are among the dozens in the Palmyra Road and State Highway 32 vicinity that could be impacted with lower insurance rates if additional fire substations are constructed and manned. (Staff Photo: Danny Carter)

These houses are among the dozens in the Palmyra Road and State Highway 32 vicinity that could be impacted with lower insurance rates if additional fire substations are constructed and manned. (Staff Photo: Danny Carter)

LEESBURG — Much of the preliminary work to improve fire services in Lee County has been done. What remains now is determining how committed Lee County Commissioners are to the project and how much they are willing to spend.

That topic is likely to be discussed when the commission conducts its regular monthly meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Commission Chairman Rick Muggridge says he is looking for a commitment Tuesday night.

“We assume there is a consensus about this thing, but until the five of us are in the same room and we talk about it, you don’t know,” Muggridge said.

Several months ago, the commission hired National Fire Services Office, a consulting firm, to come up with a game plan to improve firefighting services in the county and eventually reduce insurance rates for property owners.

As a result of that study, a Department of Public Safety has been formed including both firefighters and emergency medical service personnel. Training is under way to make the EMS staffers qualified to fight fires.

Muggridge acknowledges there has been some criticism about the effort.

“There is a perception that our fire department is just fine and that people don’t understand why we are talking about spending money,” Muggridge said.

“It’s not fine. We have issues with the number of people who respond to fires. We resolved that by cross training EMS personnel. That was the least expensive way to address that problem.

“There is a need for equipment, even if we don’t open another station. We have not replaced equipment the way we probably should have, but that the case with almost every government in Georgia.

“Now, we’ve got to decide if we are going to provide services to more people in our county.”

If so, the money likely cannot be culled from the existing budget.

“I can tell you we won’t complete this out of this year’s budget,” said Commissioner Greg Frich. “This year or next year.”

“This is important work,” Muggridge said. “I think it’s something we ought to do, but I do think it’s important we crunch numbers real hard and come to an agreement.”

Interim City Administrator Lynn Taylor said the commission can do a mid-year budget assessment to see what cash flow might be available.

That’s not promising, Muggridge said, who noted there are other pressing needs outside the fire service area.

“Our utility authority needs some equipment, and we have some building maintenance issues,” Muggridge said.

He said the fire service needs may require some type of financing.

Skip Starling of NFSO is on the agenda Tuesday night and is looking for direction from the commission.

Starling has recommended an initial step of adding two substations. One would be in the vicinity of Palmyra Road and Georgia Highway 32 and another would be near the intersection of Highway 195 and New York Road northeast of Leesburg.

Both areas currently have ISO ratings of 10 - the highest level. Starling said the two stations would cost around $350,000 total and would be manned by volunteers. The cost of new fire engines would be about $63,000 annually for 10 years. It’s likely the new equipment would be placed in regular stations manned by paid firefighters and that older equipment would be then moved to the substations.

Starling has asked for the authority to locate and negotiate a price for the two parcels of land.

More than 80 percent of the equipment needed for each station is already in place, Starling says.

The county is in the process of recruiting volunteers to help man the substations.

Lee County currently have five stations manned by paid firefighters and EMS personnel. They include:

Leesburg: This station has responsibility for the schools, nursing home and property in and around the city.

Century: Located south of Century Road on U.S. Highway 19, this station is in the vicinity of a heavily popular section of the county and a large group of businesses on the south end of U.S. 19.

Palmyra: Located on U.S. 82 near Turner Furniture, this station has the largest commercial responsibility and is the first station to respond to Walmart and other business along Ledo Road. It likely services the area with the highest dollar value of property.

Smithville: Located on U.S. Highway 19 just south of Smithville, the station covers homes in the area, two large peanut mills and other light industrial property.

Redbone: Located at Graves Springs Road and Philema Road, this station services a second with a high concentration of homes and light commercial and business properties.