Mobile’s continued efforts to roll back emergency services offered beyond its city limits will soon force 9,000 residents in an unincorporated area of Mobile County to make decisions about fire services in the future. According to those familiar with the situation, options include annexation into the city of Mobile or forming a new city of their own.
Earlier this year, the Mobile Fire-Rescue Department (MFRD) announced it would gradually stop providing services in the expanded police jurisdiction extending three miles past the city’s corporate limits, once those areas established another source of coverage.
The change was part of Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s plan to improve Mobile’s Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating. Some insurance companies use those ratings, which range from 1 to 10 — 10 being the worst — when setting premiums for their customers. As of Nov. 28, Mobile achieved the ISO Class 1 rating, putting MFRD among the highest-rated departments in the country.
On Sept. 1, MFRD stopped responding to fire service calls in the areas of Theodore and Tillman’s Corner and emergency medical calls throughout the expanded police jurisdiction. So far, existing private and public services near the affected areas have been able to fill the void.
With support from the city, the Theodore Volunteer Fire Department was able to absorb the areas that lost fire coverage, and the Mobile County Emergency Medical Service was able to take over the areas that lost emergency services coverage.
But there has also been one area District 3 Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl refers to as “the hole” where, unlike the other areas, if the city were to stop responding to fire emergencies there today, thousands would be left without any protection services whatsoever.
“This is one of the most densely populated areas in West Mobile, and probably all of Mobile County,” he said. “We’re talking 9,000 people who are affected in just a five-mile radius.”
The radius in question runs west from the city’s corporate limits to just past McFarland Road and south from Airport Boulevard to West Lake Road. A map created by the county outlining the area may be viewed at lagniappemobile.com.
The good news, according to Carl, is the city and Stimpson’s administration have pledged to continue responding to calls for fire emergencies until residents in the affected area can figure out how they want fill that gap in service. Public Safety Director Jim Barber also said the area abuts communities with established fire districts if the city’s services were to get overwhelmed.
However, the county is limited in what it can do to help address the issue because, according to Carl, the commission “does not have any jurisdiction over any fire department and is not authorized by the state to start a fire department.”
Further complicating the matter is the fact there is no city government or established leadership in the affected area, which means it will be up to the residents themselves to organize and decide what course of action is best for their community.
According to Carl, the community has four possible solutions to choose from: start its own a volunteer fire district; join the nearby Seven Hills Fire District; vote to be annexed into the city of Mobile; or incorporate and form an entirely new city.
Each option would require an election by voters in the affected area, meaning an organized effort would need to be timely to be added to an upcoming ballot and the issue may not be resolved until the 2020 presidential election or after.
“Ideally, I would prefer the city keep doing what they’re doing, but that’s not going to happen,” Carl said. “So, you’ve got to have people willing to step up and at least express their opinion, get the conversation started and see what the people think.”
Carl, whose district includes the majority of the affected area, is trying to organize a pair of community meetings on Jan. 15 at the Living Word Church at 2900 Dawes Road in Mobile. The first is scheduled at 10:30 a.m. and a second will start at 6:30 p.m. for residents who work during the day.
Personnel from various agencies involved will be on hand to answer questions about each of the possible paths forward for the community. However, Carl acknowledged each of the potential courses of action could present its own set of challenges down the road.
It wouldn’t be unthinkable for the area some refer to as West Mobile to become its own city.
Semmes, which was incorporated in 2010, only has a bit more than half the population of the current unincorporated area. Carl said he’s heard from some business owners who have considered the idea, though he isn’t sure what appetite there may be for incorporation among residents at large.
For Mobile, expanding westward is the only real option for annexation, but even if the residents voted in favor, the Mobile City Council would have to approve it. That could turn into a separate political issue of its own, as annexation of West Mobile has been a contentious subject between mayoral administrations and city councilors in years past.
Carl, who lives in the Seven Hills Fire District, said the volunteer department is “second to none.” However, to maintain its ISO rating, he said the department would likely have to build an additional fire station closer to Schillinger Road if it took over fire services in the area.
The Seven Hills Volunteer Fire Department has told Lagniappe and other local media that it doesn’t plan to comment on the matter publicly until after the community meetings on Jan. 15.
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