It was a typical weekday morning in Fairhope on Wednesday, Nov. 20, save for the smoke billowing from a rooftop at 922 Edwards Ave. There, on the edge of one of the city’s older subdivisions, musician Harold Floyd was asleep inside his single-story brick house, when an alert ambulance crew who happened to be driving past noticed thick, gray smoke rising into the blue sky and bright flames licking the eaves.
According to Fairhope Volunteer Fire Department Chief Chris Ellis, the crew banged on the door and windows of the house to awaken Floyd, who escaped uninjured under his own power.
“We got the call at 10:59 a.m., I was there at 11, a truck was on scene by 11:02,” Ellis recalled Monday. “When we got there, there was heavy smoke coming from the front, the fire had already broke through the roof in the back and had a good headway on us. But we were able to make a good stop and salvage a lot of musical instruments … I can’t say if they were able to save the house.”
While Floyd and another resident of the home, Gail Dancy, were uninjured, not everyone is always as fortunate. In early March, a 42-year-old male and a 41-year-old female, residents of a mobile home off U.S. Route 181 in Fairhope, died of their injuries days after being rescued from a fire. On July 27, a 51-year-old male died in a structure fire in Orange Beach. And last November, fire claimed the life of a 16-year-old female in Bay Minette.
As of Nov. 17, there had been 71 fire fatalities reported across Alabama in 2019, according to the State Fire Marshal’s Office, which is on track to be significantly below the 10-year high of 122 fatalities in 2010.
Far more frequent are traffic fatalities. The Alabama Department of Public Health recorded 31 deaths due to motor vehicle accidents in Baldwin County in 2017, a year when 1,032 deaths were reported statewide.
Across the county, of 15,732 emergency calls to the Baldwin County Emergency Communications District last year for fire service — whether for fires or traffic accidents — most were responded to by one or more of the county’s 37 volunteer fire departments. In fact, Baldwin County — Alabama’s largest by total land area at nearly 1,600 square miles — is primarily served by volunteer fire departments.
“Career” fire departments, or those with a combination of paid and volunteer staff, only exist in Orange Beach, Gulf Shores, Daphne, Foley and Bay Minette, although other municipalities may compensate a handful of firefighters or officials.
Most volunteer departments, especially those in more rural areas, exist on relative shoestring budgets and are understaffed. Yet of the volunteers Lagniappe spoke to, they still feel they are adequately and efficiently responding to calls in their respective service areas, while mutual aid agreements with nearby departments assure additional help is available when needed.
“We are a department of 17 members in an area that has experienced historical growth with people moving out to what used to be the country, and our call volume has almost doubled in the last few years,” said Chief David Allen of the Belforest Volunteer Fire Department (VFD), which serves about 18,000 residents in a 4.4-square-mile service area east of Daphne. “The county is covered as far as fire services are concerned, so that’s not necessarily the issue. The issue is manpower — if you don’t get people that come in the door to apply, you can fall short, so we’ve been heavy on recruitment.”
Still, Allen said he’d need seven to 10 more firefighters “to feel fully staffed.”
“Although I have no problem now with the current staffing — there’s nothing out there we can’t do — at the same time, people do get tired, they wear out, they need to take some time off and not having that additional staffing wears everybody out,” he said.
Similarly, Deputy Chief Ed Vaughn, who has served with the Loxley VFD for 37 years, said “the growth is phenomenal and as far as our being able to handle it, we’re doing the best we can with what we have.”
As a rookie firefighter, Vaughn remembers State Route 59 when it was just a two-lane highway. But now as a major corridor to the heavily developed coast, “there seems to be more traffic every year, and it can have an effect on response times.”
Plus, “Everywhere you look they are building subdivisions,” he said. “They are not building quite as quickly as they were a couple years ago, but there has been a steady eastern progression from the Eastern Shore toward Loxley, and everywhere they can put one they will.”
Vaughn said he recently spoke to a Loxley building official who related the city has reduced its recent load of eight to 10 building permits per week down to just three or four.
“Very few of the volunteer fire departments have the manpower available 24/7, so we depend on the help from mutual aid,” he said. “All our volunteers have to work somewhere else full-time to pay the bills, so Baldwin County is lucky we have great departments where everybody works well together.”
Fairhope doesn’t have a problem with manpower, Ellis said, counting 52 member firefighters in September. With four stations in a 44-square-mile service area, the Fairhope VFD alone answered more than 1,000 calls last year, and was on pace to exceed its totals again this year.
PAID VERSUS VOLUNTEER
No matter the current staffing levels, all VFDs in the county have limited sources of funding. Primarily, they depend on a countywide 1.5-mill ad valorem tax that is equitably distributed among all departments.
In 2018, the fire tax generated roughly $6.47 million, according to the Baldwin County Revenue Department, which, split 37 ways, awarded around $175,000 to each department. It was actually worth more in 2010 due to higher assessments, but fell rapidly in ensuing years and has increased significantly since a low of $4.89 million generated in 2012.
Other than that, volunteer fire departments rely upon grant opportunities, fundraising and donations for additional revenue. In 2017, the Fairhope VFD reported $329,584 in total revenue, which included $113,524 in additional grants and gifts, plus $38,477 from fundraising events.
The same year, Belforest VFD reported $158,210 in total revenue, only $3,466 of which was raised to supplement the fire tax.
Meanwhile, both departments reported average response times of seven to 10 minutes, and both maintained Insurance Service Office (ISO) ratings of four out of 10, with a rating of one being the highest. Scored every three years, Fairhope is currently awaiting the results of its most recent ISO evaluation.
Comparatively, the career fire department for the city of Gulf Shores carries an ISO-1 rating, while that of the city of Foley currently carries an ISO-3 rating.
Ellis said newer residents to the area are often surprised to learn Fairhope does not fund a paid fire department and, occasionally, there have been suggestions to do just that. But in defense of volunteer departments, he said the countywide ad valorem tax “helps offset financial impacts to the cities” and while paid departments “may make sense” in some cities, “right now, with 52 volunteers as dedicated as our folks … when you measure the pros and cons … I’d say our response is second to none with our professional qualifications and the equipment we’re running.”
The ad valorem tax can only be used for equipment purchases, training, facilities and maintenance, and may not be used for such expenses as salaries or fundraising. Meanwhile, several municipalities often chip in to assist their volunteer departments, as Fairhope did with a $300,000 contribution for a new pumper truck in the 2020 budget. Historically, the city has also covered the Fairhope VFD’s workman’s compensation insurance and other immediate capital expense needs.
Across the state line in Escambia County, Florida, county commissioners responded to a staffing shortage at volunteer departments by incorporating a “combination” countywide fire department that currently utilizes both paid and volunteer staff to serve all areas outside the city of Pensacola. It also has mutual aid agreements with several VFDs in eastern Baldwin County, including Lillian, which has lent its fire boat to Escambia County “numerous times.”
Interim Fire Chief John Williams said Monday that prior to the change, Escambia County was served by dozens of volunteer stations like Baldwin County is today.
“In the ’90s we really started to see a decline in volunteerism and a lot of the stations were seeing more staffing shortfalls, especially during the daytime hours,” Williams said. “So the county instituted a municipal services benefit unit (MSBU) and hired the first career firefighters, who were assigned to strategic stations around the county on a Monday through Friday, 8 to 5 schedule.”
Today, homeowners in Escambia County pay $125 per year for the MSBU, which generated $17.5 million for the fire department in 2018. With 21 fire stations servicing 665 square miles, Escambia County Fire-Rescue currently employs 169 career personnel and 150 to 175 volunteers, more than three quarters of whom are certified, Williams said.
“There was no pushback,” Williams recalled about the change. “As a matter of fact, all of the volunteer chiefs had gotten together on numerous occasions … and they fully supported hiring career firefighters to start filling in those times when volunteers were at work.”
But even with his experience as a career firefighter, Williams believes Baldwin’s primarily volunteer structure remains feasible and effective.
“Recruitment and retention is a problem … it’s quite a commitment for someone to make — there is a lot of training and some stations are busy and high-run — but [volunteer departments] are definitely beneficial,” he said.
But comparing Escambia County to Baldwin County is not apples to apples. While Baldwin County has almost twice as much land, Escambia County has an estimated 100,000 more residents, according to 2017 Census estimates. And with a median home value hovering around $222,000, Baldwin County residential properties are worth about 40 percent more than their neighbors in Florida.
Those differences, along with a lack of interest in a countywide department here and a hesitancy to pass additional taxes leads Vaughn to believe he “won’t see a career department in his lifetime.”
“A full-blown paid career department is probably a little beyond Loxley’s budget, but they are looking at putting some paid people in place starting small, maybe with two or three,” he said. “Recruiting volunteers in today’s world is extremely difficult. Everybody is so busy and they have so much to do and volunteering takes away from their family, whatever after-work activities there may be. It’s a challenge to recruit and retain, but I don’t think [paid departments are] the answer.”
Allen agreed, adding that when departments become part of municipality, they also have the tendency to become politicized.
“I’ve heard horror stories about chiefs or deputies taking the fall for political reasons, and it tends to have an effect on morale throughout the entire department, so thankfully that’s one thing we avoid,” he said. “I don’t have enough experience with a countywide system to know they how they do it, but I do know the Baldwin County Commission does everything they can to support first responders unwavering and we make do with what we have.”
Anyone is welcome to apply at the Belforest VFD or their own neighborhood departments, Allen said, and if their application is approved by the VFD board, applicants typically complete a 30-day probationary period and 160 hours of training at the Alabama Fire College to receive a certification.
From there, “the time commitment varies,” he said. “We have training sessions every Thursday for about 12 to 13 hours per month in continuous training and we take emergency calls as they come up.”
Gear and equipment is provided by the department, and those who are interested in volunteering for a department but not in emergency response can skip the training and instead help with clerical, maintenance, fundraising, cleaning or other duties.
“There’s something for everyone and we need bodies,” he said.
Volunteer or combination departments serve areas including Barnwell, Belforest, Bon Secour, Crossroads, Daphne, Elberta, Elsanor, Fairhope, Fish River/Marlow, Fort Morgan, Gateswood, Huggers Landing/Oyster Bay, Josephine, Lillian, Little River, Lottie, Loxley, Magnolia Springs, Perdido Beach, Perdido, Pine Grove, Rabun, Robertsdale, Rosinton, Seminole, Silverhill, Spanish Fort, Stapleton, Stockton, Styx River, Summerdale, Tensaw and White House Fork.
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