Thursday, July 2, 2009

Fire Station No. 6: A Contrarian Argument

As I was driving to work westward on the Athens bypass one morning last week at about 8:15, I noticed a series of three fire department vehicles (two engines and another rescue-type vehicle) complete with lights flashing and sirens wailing, coming down the ramp from North Avenue headed east on the bypass toward Old Hull Road. I assume they were dispatched from Fire Station No. 1 on College Avenue. Though I do not know precisely where the fire engines were heading, it appeared to be toward the Athens Technical College and Athena Industrial park area – you know, right where the closed Fire Station No. 6 is located.

Of course this immediately aroused my interest, as I (apparently) have been the only person in Clarke County concerned about the obvious gap in local fire protection created by the indefinite closing of Fire Station No. 6 – which has now been vacant for four full months with no projected reopening in sight.

My concern was how the indefinite closing of a station would affect property insurance ratings – a question that proved quite a chore to answer. Over the course of the past few weeks, I spoke to all manner of folks in all manner of places. To make a very long story short, I eventually got hold of a real live person in the “mitigation” section of the Insurance Services Office (ISO) regarding its Public Protection Classification ratings, the group that to a large part determines what I pay for property insurance. I was told that information pertaining to the ratings was “proprietary” and that I would have to go through the local fire chief in order for them to talk to me.

That being the case, I had an informative chat with Chief Iby George of the Athens-Clarke County Fire & Emergency Services Department a week ago today.

The gist of that conversation is that the Unified Government has until 10 June to submit its application for that “economic stimulus” grant it wants from the Obama Administration to rebuild Fire Station No. 6 (of course, one may argue as to how this constitutes economic stimulus in any meaningful manner – as opposed to routine government spending – but that is another matter concerning which I did not quiz the good chief). About 30 days after that, the folks down at City Hall should then know whether the grant will be forthcoming.

If the grant does not come through and the Unified Government elects to repair the existing roof, the process to make the station fully operational again should take from six to nine months after the bid process is completed (partial operations could resume somewhat sooner). Even if one assumes the most optimistic of circumstances, Fire Station No. 6 will be closed for more than a full year at the very least.

If, on the other hand, the Unified Government secures its desired federal largesse, demolition of the existing structure and building of a new station is expected to take between 18 and 24 months after the bid process is completed (as it was explained to me, the grant has a limit of three years). Given that scenario, Fire Station No. 6 may be closed for more than three years.

The prospect of such an extended closure is what prompted my concern in the first place. I am told that, given the distribution of the county’s other fire stations, the absence of Fire Station No. 6 should not affect “prescribed” response times to a significant degree, certainly not enough to cause concern. The nearest stations are Fire Station No. 1 on College Avenue and Fire Station No. 9 on Danielsville Road though, in my opinion, it is a long haul from either to the more remote portions of the county formerly served by Fire Station No.6.

Apparently, as long as the prescribed response times are theoretically maintained though other stations and Fire Station No. 6 is back in operation at the time of the Department’s ten-year ISO renewal, no one seems to share my concerns as to its lengthy closure. To me, at least, this calls the accuracy and utility of the ISO’s ratings into serious question – but that is just me.

Also, I am told that Clarke County has agreements with regard to neighboring “mutual aid responders,” which means the volunteer fire departments in Winterville, Madison County, Oglethorpe County, etc. No disrespect intended, but if a school (e.g. Winterville Elementary School, Coile Middle School, Athens Technical College) or an industry (e.g. Nakanishi Manufacturing, Certainteed, Carrier Transicold, Invista, Merial Limited, Noramco) or some other such structure in the Clarke County hinterland goes up in flames, I’m not counting on much help from a volunteer fire department located half an hour away (okay, the one in Winterville is local, but the point remains).

For those interested, I confirmed that Fire Station No. 10, located at Athens-Ben Epps Airport, is operated as part of the airport rather than as part of the Fire & Emergency Services Department. Its staff and equipment are required for the conduct of flight operations, so neither leave the airport’s property.

With the caveat that I think that repairs should be made to the existing structure so as to get Fire Station No. 6 operational again as soon as possible, that station being the closest one to a large portion of the county’s industries and to those homes and schools in the northeastern part of the county, here comes the contrarian argument:

1. If Fire Station No. 6 is a vital part of the county’s fire protection system (as the Unified Government’s intention to either repair or rebuild it – not to mention common sense – would indicate), the objective should be getting the station back up and running as soon as possible. Thus repairing the roof of the existing station would be the correct course of action.

2. If Fire Station No. 6 is not a vital part of the county’s fire protection system (as its closure for a period that may well stretch into years
and the claim that such an absence does not substantially degrade the level of fire protection across the county – would indicate), why repair or rebuild the station at all? Why not save the taxpayers a substantial sum by permanently closing the station?

It seems to me that the Unified Government is maintaining diametrically opposed positions merely because it may have the opportunity to get a new fire station on someone else’s dime. But of course, all of those government dimes, be they local, state, or federal, ultimately come from the same pocket don’t they?

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Anonymous said...

"But of course, all of those government dimes, be they local, state, or federal, ultimately come from the same pocket don’t they?"

Something that Paul Broun doesn't seem to understand either. They are different pockets. The Federal pocket is paid for by every American whereas the Athens pocket is paid for by only Athenians. If I ever have a choice of which pocket to pay with, it will always be the Federal pocket. Afterall, if we are the ones putting X amount of dollars into a pocket we should be taking at least X amount of dollars. And if we take 100X amount of dollars, I am THRILLED! Ultimately, that's what politics is. Getting other people to pay for the stuff you want.

james said...

"Getting other people to pay for the stuff you want."

That pretty much sums up progressive government, not to mention how we got into our present situation, doesn't it. Municipalities, counties, and states all try to get something for nothing - and we taxpayers end up paying for it all regardless of from which particular budget the money comes.

I amm inclined to think that both Broun and I get it just right.

Anonymous said...

It sums up government. And it doesn't make sense to pay in taxes to the federal government and let everyone else get the benefits except for Athens.

Anonymous said...

Broun's position would perhaps be eminently sensible IF he could get the other 534 members of Congress to go along. Until then, it is a dumb position that only ends up hurting his own constituents, who are paying into the federal tax system but not getting anything back from it.

GES said...

The Feds ought to fund only a few things for the U.S. The military is a good example. Simply eliminate the ear marks, and get back to good government. This hard lesson all need to learn is that debt is a bad thing and it's to be avoided;

Downsizing, doing more with less, thrift and frugality: None of these are sexy, or seem "modern." Like air and water, though, they are necessities that demand adherence when citizens and our leaders least expect it. I'm betting NOW is the time ... BUT, hey, let's just see how far we can go down the debt road ... we can't remember last time, right?

B. Y. Clark said...

eliminating ear marks won't do a darn thing. You have to eliminate the funding that is being ear marked to do any good. An ear mark simply designates funding to a particular project, but the overall level of funding has already be approved.

Winfield J. Abbe said...

I agree with all of Mr. Garland's criticisms of the hypocritical government of Athens Clarke County.
Notice how the new fire chief did not justify how this fire station could be closed so long but yet this fire department could somehow provide the same level of emergency response service without this station. This is similar to how this government aided certain friends and cronies in Oconee County recently when the Jennings Mill Country Club burned down. Being a Good Samaritan is one thing, but it is the responsibility of each county to provide its own fire protection, not pay for the fire protection of other counties. None of these issues is discussed or has been discussed by the editors of the Athens Banner Herald. Why?
My only criticism of Mr. Garland is that he is far too polite to the totally negligent new high paid Fire Chief for his silence on this basic issue, and his silence on many other basic issues of public safety, like the removal of the needed connecting road between Danielsville Rd. and Commerce Rd. to make efficient use of the multi million dollar fire station on Danielsville Rd. or the failure to close Oglethorpe AVe. during the July 4 celebration so the fire truck or other emergency vehicles could reach emergencies, or the disaster waiting to happen with gasoline delivery trucks exiting the gasoline tank farm on Jefferson Rd. across the street from Moss Side Subdivision with no traffic light, often sitting on the railroad tracks there for up to 15 minutes or more. The Athens Banner Herald and our new fire chief are mum on these basic subjects of neglect of public safety here, while the former Mayor Eldridge provides him kudos for the downtown fire that destroyed the Georgia Theatre. Obviously that former fire chief of Athens, who lives in Oconee County, misrepresented the need for all these expensive full time fire stations. This government is very lucky and likely will never be challenged with emergencies that contradict its false claims about public safety here. Notice how both the ABH editors and the local elected non representatives politely ignore the intelligent polite comments of Mr. Garland. Mum is the word like the three fools, no hear, no see, no speak. This is all just another day at the plant in Athens Clarke County, Georgia, where friends and cronies receive favors from government while everyone else receives the shaft with impunity. What citizens here need are some practical tools to deal with government that violates the law each day with impunity. For example, when government risks the public safety by improperly keeping this fire station closed, the commissioners and mayor should be placed in jail until they repair and reopen the facility. Hollow talk us worthless with them.
Their supervisior, the State of Georgia, must change the law and allow citizens rights to demand and compel action from government officials with the same powers of fines, jail time and confiscation of property that government routinely uses to comple citizens to perform certain actions. Notice how silent all the firemen are about all this neglect of public safety too. If they spoke up they would lose their jobs wouldn't they? But what kind of employees are they if they remain silent as they do? All this clearly shows the dismal failure of "home rule".

Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass said...

What about the Winterville Fire Department? Professionally equipped, but staffed by volunteers , they are the equal of any A-CC department when they are paged out and respond...

S Whiddon said...

Mr. Snodgrass, a volunteer station is just as prepared as a full time fire station. They have to maintain all certifications just as the career firefighters do. The state sets standards for all firefighters and fire responders, regardless of their pay. Coming from a combination dept (full time paid and volunteer dept) in North Ga I can say it works well with both within one county.