Fire departments given deadline to reach agreement

Published 5:39 pm Friday, April 8, 2011

Jemison Fire Department and several surrounding fire departments have been given a deadline of May 19 to come to an agreement about who will provide primary service to areas just outside the Jemison city limits.

Jemison Fire Chief John Dennis and the chief of at least one of the surrounding department’s, North Chilton’s Jason Scott, gave conflicting accounts about the status of attempts to reach an agreement.

Both men confirmed the two sides met, on April 4, for the first time since Jemison’s city council decided in 2009 to expand its fire and rescue coverage 1.5 miles beyond the city limits in all directions.

The decision was not welcomed by North Chilton, Collins Chapel, Union Grove and West Chilton departments because Jemison’s expanded jurisdiction would have cut into areas traditionally served by the rural departments. So, Chilton County’s E-911 organization began “dual dispatch” into the areas, sending any departments who claimed the area to calls, no matter how minor.

“It’s been chaotic,” 911 Director Helen Kilpatrick said. “We’re already under so much stress because our workload has increased so much the past few years. It’s undue stress put on my dispatchers, and there’s not a thing I can do about it.”

The issue has been a controversial one at meetings of the 911 board, which decided to give the parties until May 19 to agree on a contract pertaining to the areas in dispute.

If no contract is signed before that date, the board has declared its intention to make Jemison the primary responder for the areas in question.

The board is comprised of Sheriff Kevin Davis (chairman), county commissioners Allen Caton (co-chairman) and Tim Mims (the commission chairman), Clanton Mayor Billy Joe Driver, Maplesville Mayor Aubrey Latham, Scott (as a representative of the Chilton County Firefighters/EMS Association), and Sara Varden with Collins Chapel (as the EMS representative).

Dennis said contracts with Collins Chapel, Union Grove and West Chilton should be signed before the deadline, and said after a “very productive” meeting with North Chilton officials that the two sides agreed in principle to a contract, which would include North Chilton being made the primary responder in parts of the disputed area closest to the North Chilton station, located off Chilton County Road 46, about 1,000 feet off Highway 155 that runs between Montevallo and Highway 31 north of Jemison.

“I believe both departments are agreeable to a contract, barring unforeseen circumstances,” Dennis said.

But Scott declined to say whether the two sides were closer to an agreement than they were when Scott originally talked with The Clanton Advertiser, on March 30, at which time there had been no negotiations.

Scott said his department has continued to serve the area, off Highway 31 and Highway 155, because a portion of county residents’ property tax is designated specifically for rural fire departments.

“All county volunteer departments have an obligation, a duty, to provide that service to the citizens,” Scott said. “If we don’t give the service, those citizens are paying taxes for services they are not receiving.”

Chilton County Tax Assessor Rex Cleckler said the money collected for fire service is split evenly among 18 units, while each municipality sets its own property tax millage rate to go toward fire and rescue.

Cleckler said that if the proper paperwork was filed and approved, residents in the disputed areas would be changed over from the county rate to the Jemison rate, an increase from 4 mills to 7 mills (35 mills is standard for every Chilton County resident, then the rate for fire service is added on).

Scott said other concerns are that North Chilton is closer to the area in dispute and can provide residents with a better ISO rating, thus saving them money on their homeowner’s insurance.

Adam Price, chief of Cedar Grove Fire Department and president of the Chilton County Volunteer Firefighters Association, echoed one of Scott’s concerns.

“My biggest concern is, if Jemison covers some of these areas, Jemison has a higher ISO than some of these surrounding departments,” Price said. “It is what it is. I hope everybody works it out.”

Scott said two departments responding to minor calls, many of which would be health related, puts firefighters at risk.

“That is not an ideal situation because you now have multiple units responding to some very simplistic incidents–blood pressure checks, general illness,” Scott said. “This places the public and the citizens of Chilton County in harm’s way because you now have multiple emergency vehicles on the roadway responding to a simple incident. You’re also putting the life safety of volunteer firefighters at risk. There’s risks every time we get in a truck.”

Maplesville is the only other Chilton County municipality that provides fire service 1.5 miles past the city limits, but Maplesville’s expanded jurisdiction doesn’t include areas traditionally served by another department.

Scott said another concern is his department is closer to residents of the disputed area than Jemison’s department.

Another development in the relationship between Jemison and North Chilton Fire Departments came recently in the form of a letter from Scott notifying Jemison and 911 that North Chilton and West Chilton fire departments would no longer respond to calls for aid inside the Jemison city limits.

Scott said the letter was the result of a meeting with West Chilton Fire Chief Steve Tate, but Tate did not sign the letter and repeated attempts to contact Tate to verify his department’s position were unsuccessful.

Scott said the decision was based on the fact that his department has not completed any training with Jemison firefighters since Dennis was named chief, in October 2009.

“I don’t remember the true dispute over the area being the primary concern–the primary concern being the life safety of our members in knowing all aspects of their capabilities,” Scott said. “That training gives us the opportunity to learn from them of their capabilities, their aspects and their safety for our personnel…We need to basically know a little bit more about you.”

Scott also said that while his department has entered into contracts with many surrounding departments to provide aid, there is no such agreement in place with Jemison.

“I can’t speak to what has happened prior to us, but there’s been a difficulty with trying to get together with [North Chilton],” Dennis said. “Everybody has their own ideas on how to do things, and sometimes it’s difficult to bring everybody together.”