Proposal: paid firefighting positions at volunteer fire stations could help Washington Co. response

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WASHINGTON COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) – A proposal to change the way volunteer fire departments in Washington County, Tennessee respond to active fire scenes has been presented to county leaders.

The Washington County Fire Chief’s Association believes staffing local volunteer fire departments with some paid members is the way to account for safer response to fire scenes. They have devised a plan to implement the change, which they say will better protect those firefighters who have volunteered to protect their communities.

“Fire engines do not fight fires, firefighters do. We want to make sure we are getting our firefighters to the scene safely,” said Myron Hughes with the Fall Branch VFD, speaking on behalf of the association.

At this time, a partnership established with Washington County/Johnson City EMS allows for their on-staff rescue technicians to respond with fire engines to a scene.

Volunteer fire stations are not staffed 24/7 and often volunteers will respond from home, work, or wherever they are. This makes the partnership with EMS helpful because they do have round-the-clock staffing and can quickly get an engine to the scene.

However, this is what the association is looking at changing. They say while this service provides fast response times, it is only a “stopgap,” and they want to see a more permanent solution in improving fire response in the county.

“Having people on scene and having people that can fight fire are two different things,” said Hughes.

The association says firefighters are best equipped to respond in those engines. That is why they are proposing to hire around 50 paid firefighting positions for Washington County’s volunteer fire departments. This would allow for two staffed firefighters per shift at each volunteer department who could then respond directly from the station. At three shifts, this would amount to a proposed six firefighters per department at eight departments.

This is the standard practice of most non-volunteer fire departments with already paid employees.

Having staff members paid and at the station would also prevent a volunteer firefighter from having to rush to the station from home and take the engine to a scene.

The association believes this is a better response tactic, which also allows the rescue techs to focus solely on any medical response needed on the scene, not getting the engine there.

“We do understand and appreciate the need to get a fire engine on scene quickly. But doing so then would require the rest of the volunteers to take personal vehicles to the scene. We are concerned with the amount of extra danger this puts them in and the public in when they are responding this way,” said Hughes.

The fire association says they want to streamline response, making sure everyone on a scene has one job and sticks to that job. This strategy is meant to promote firefighter safety and fast action.

“The more that we can make things the same every single time and expect the same thing every single time, the better off it’s going to be for everyone. It’s less chaos on emergency scenes, and the faster we will be able to take care of those emergencies,” said Hughes.

This proposal is being evaluated now through the County Technical Assistance Service, an advisory service provided throughout the state by the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. When those results come back, evaluations will be made on if these changes will be possible by the county’s Public Safety Committee.

A CTAS representative has visited the Washington County volunteer fire stations for evaluation and is processing call data from 911 over the past few years.

Part of staffing paid firefighters at Washington County volunteer stations could result in a property tax increase to account for the salaries. This will depend on the final projections from the ongoing study.

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