The city of Mobile is set to roll back fire and rescue services for some areas outside of its corporate limits, but county officials say residents in the affected areas shouldn’t be concerned.
As of Sept. 1, the Mobile Fire-Rescue Department expects to no longer respond to fire service calls in the Theodore and Tillmans Corner areas or emergency medical calls anywhere within the police jurisdiction extending three miles beyond the city limits. Going forward, the Theodore Volunteer Fire Department (VFD) and the Mobile County Emergency Medical Service (EMS) will respond to calls in those respective areas.
The planned reduction in services is part of Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s ongoing effort to improve Mobile’s Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating. Some insurance companies use those ratings, which range from 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst, when setting premiums for their customers.
Mobile currently has an ISO-3 rating, but Stimpson’s administration has suggested eliminating the lengthy response times in Mobile’s outskirts could improve the rating to ISO-1 over time, while improving response times in the county and within the corporate limits because of the resources it would free up.
When addressing the Mobile County Commission last week, MFRD Chief of Operations Doug Cooper said the change would benefit residents in both areas.
“The driving force behind this is to provide better services to the citizens of the city, but we also want to do justice to the people that live in the county, and the current model wasn’t serving their needs or the city’s needs because our units are not positioned to cover those areas,” Cooper said. “Our response times out there were pretty abysmal because we were driving past a Theodore fire station to get to a call or sending an ambulance from midtown when Mobile County EMS has a unit a block away. But they weren’t getting the calls. We were.”
Cooper said MRFD will also be maintaining mutual aid agreements with Theodore’s fire department and Mobile County EMS to send backup resources whenever either agency requests them. The city is also helping the fire department get the training, recruiting and equipment it needs to make the transition.
The tentative date for the transition is Sept. 1, but Mobile Director of Public Safety James Barber said a few details are still being ironed out with the Mobile County Communications District (MCCD) to ensure 911 calls will be routed to the proper agencies and the switch wouldn’t occur until those issues are resolved.
While the fire department in Theodore is run by volunteers, its operations still cost money, and what the city’s saving by reducing the number of calls it answers in the area could have to be picked up by the Mobile County Water Sewer and Fire Protection Authority, which oversees water, sewer and fire services in the area.
The agency currently charges monthly fees of $2 to customers within the fire service area of the Theodore VFD and $1 for those who live outside of the area.
It’s unclear whether or not the fee structure will have to change, but County Commissioner Jerry Carl, whose district includes Theodore, said the water authority does plan to cover the cost of “beefing up the fire department with equipment and supplies” along with assistance from the city of Mobile.
At the same time, the city’s decision to end medical calls within its police jurisdiction is already having a financial impact on the county. While the Mobile County EMS is a standalone nonprofit, its expenses are subsidized by the Mobile County Commission because it provides services to rural areas other private operators don’t serve.
“That’s where our costs will come into play, though we’re not exactly sure of what those costs will be,” Carl told Lagniappe. “We’re still debating those costs with EMS. I believe they’ve already got three trucks to cover the increased volume, and they’ve approached us about a budget increase next year.”
While the change may cost the county more down the road, Carl said he believes it will mean an improvement in services for residents in the city and county.
GUS Board dissolved
Commissioners voted unanimously this week to dissolve a county board that’s done little more than assist with permitting and maintain a large swath of rural land for years. After dodging a similar attempt to dissolve in 2015, the Mobile County Governmental Utilities Services (GUS) Board is no more.
The GUS Board was created in 1995 to oversee the development of a sewer treatment plant on 2,000 acres of land in southern Mobile County, but stuck around even after plans for the plant fell through. Maintaining the property became one of its main tasks, though it has also assisted with some economic development efforts.
County Administrator John Pafenbach said last week the board members “basically meet once a month and authorize the payment of one or two bills, and it would be just as well if the county did it.”
There was no debate about dissolving the board, but a two-year old agreement with the MCCD did threaten to delay the action. During the commission’s work sessions on Aug. 9, President Connie Hudson said some on the board didn’t want to dissolve it until MCCD made good on a four-year-old promise.
“I spoke with my representative and he feels that some contractual obligations have not yet been met between the GUS Board and [MCCD] and he feels uncomfortable, at this point, dissolving this board until some of these loose ends have come to some sort of agreed-to conclusions,” she said. “I don’t disagree. If [MCCD] agreed to certain things, those issues need to be handled.”
Hudson was referring to an agreement the two entities inked in 2014 for the MCCD to trade the GUS Board 13 of its new public safety radios (with an estimated total value of $68,000) for the continued use of a small piece of the GUS Board’s property needed to access one the radio towers used in the local 911 system.
At the time, MCCD attorney Jeff Hartley suggested it might be “beyond of the scope” of MCCD’s authority to redirect tax dollars collected for the 911 system to buy new radios for civilians or nonemergency municipal employees.
It’s an issue Hartley and attorneys for the county have been back and forth on for the better part of two years but one that seemed to have been resolved in time for the GUS Board to be dissolved Aug. 13.
MCCD Director Charlie McNichol told Lagniappe Friday “the radios have been delivered to the county administrator’s office” but there were still ongoing discussions about “exactly how the radios will be used.”
Days later, the county’s environmental services division — formerly a part of its engineering department — confirmed the radios will be used by engineering department employees during official states of emergency.
In those situations, the radios would allow them to communicate directly with first responders on the MCCD’s new, $40 million radio network. Under normal circumstances, those employees would use the county’s older radio system, which the MCCD used from the late 1980s until last year.