ROGERSVILLE — Hawkins County’s Emergency Management Agency director told county commissioners last week that there is a growing problem with volunteer fire departments dispatched as first responders not answering fire or other emergency calls.
Hawkins County leaders are investigating the possibility of establishing a countywide fire department. EMA director Gary Murrell believes that would resolve slow- or no-response problems, especially among the departments with the fewest members.
During a June 13 meeting Murrell told the Hawkins County Commission’s Public Safety Committee that some fire departments dispatched as first responders aren’t answering calls.
“We’ve got fire departments that are not responding,” Murrell told the committee. “I don’t know who is going to take responsibility for it if something happens and they don’t go. It’s not just one department.”
The University of Tennessee County Technical Assistance Service (C-TAS) is assisting Hawkins County in its efforts to create a countywide fire department. Among the services C-TAS is performing is compiling a report on fire department and emergency response activities in the county.
Murrell was asked by the Public Safety Committee to identify which fire departments aren’t responding to calls. Murrell said he would rather let that information come out in the C-TAS report.
“I want everyone to understand I’m not picking on any emergency service,” Murrell said. “I think we’ve got good a good bunch of emergency services, but we’ve got some that’s still 20 years ago — the good old boy days. With liability the way it is now, fire departments are held at a state standard. We need to have checks and balances.”
Lakeview Volunteer Fire Department chief Curtis Bean, who also attended the June 13 committee meeting, confirmed Murrell’s report.
“On an initial call fire departments get three pages,” Bean told the committee. “If they don’t respond within the third page they (Central Dispatch) page the next one (responder) in line. If that takes three minutes, and nobody responds, that’s a lot of time for a house to be burning.”
Bean added, “I sat yesterday (June 12) and listened to a department get paged three times and I thought we may be next because we were the next one to back them up. Finally I heard one of the members go en route in their P.O.V. (personally owned vehicle), which Central (Dispatch) is not even supposed to recognize someone going active in a P.O.V.”
Murrell told the Times-News Wednesday that failure to respond or slow response occurs mainly in departments with the fewest members. He said he anticipates the problem getting worse before it gets better.
“It’s occurring more and more lately, and it’s hit some of the departments that have the fewest members, but it’s going to start hitting all the departments,” Murrell said. “The way the times are, people have to work and make a living, and they can’t take off work to go on a fire call during the day, or at night. It’s a trend that’s growing, and recruitment for volunteer fire departments is getting harder and harder.”
Murrell said a countywide fire department could alleviate the problem to a certain extent.
Although the eight county volunteer fire departments would maintain their autonomy as individual departments, they would also be unified as a countywide department, and as such, every volunteer firefighter in the county would be considered a primary responder.
“It’s happened in other counties, and that’s what C-TAS is going to try to show — what other counties have done and how they’re still like just likethe fire departments were before they went countywide,” Murrell said. “They are still their own department, but they’re also countywide which means you’ve got more help, better training, and better grant opportunities. If you’ve got more, you can get more.”
The process of creating a countywide fire department won’t happen overnight.
C-TAS will host at least two Q&A meetings with the Hawkins County Fireman’s Association before its study is completed.
The findings of the C-TAS study will determine the feasibility of a countywide fire department.