Houston County chief explains response to Saturday’s fire
Sarah Hammond, WMAZ-TV:
Houston County, Georgia Fire Chief Chris Stoner makes no excuses about the 20-minute, understaffed response to a house fire in Bonaire on Saturday. The original response was a single career firefighter bringing a tower ladder to the scene, with volunteers coming from home to bring additional equipment. Stoner says the response is what’s available under the department’s current fundingHouston County, Georgia Fire Chief Chris Stoner makes no excuses about the 20-minute, understaffed response to a house fire in Bonaire on Saturday. The original response was a single career firefighter bringing a tower ladder to the scene, with volunteers coming from home to bring additional equipment. Stoner says the response is what’s available under the department’s current funding
Houston County Fire Department
200 Carl Vinson Parkway
Warner Robins, GA 31088
Headquarters: (478) 542-2040
Fax: (478) 328-0618
Email: [email protected]
Christopher R. Stoner
David E. Newman
William R. Smith
Houston County Fire Department strives to provide the best possible service to all our citizens. Part of that service is being transparent and honest. Several questions have been submitted in relation to a Structure Fire at 608 Ogeechee Ct this past Saturday and our departments response to that scene. Below is answers to those questions. I have also attached our standard staffing list as well as station addresses for reference.
What Stations were dispatched?
Initially Stations 2 and 5 were dispatched. For this address the normal sequence of Stations would have been 2 and 6 then station 5. In this instance, Station 6 was already on another call in Haynesville which prompted Station 5 being included in the initial dispatch. Additional Stations were dispatched throughout the incident until at least 2 Fire Engines were en route. During Volunteer coverage, additional stations are added to the dispatch every 2 minutes until enough resources are responding.
How many firefighters were on duty when the fire happened?
I have attached our staffing numbers page to this response, but in short, the answer is three. Normally we only have two on duty during the weekend. However, we are training new paid staff for the opening of the new Station 5 in a few months. Once the new Station 5 is open, our weekend staffing will be four: two personnel at Station 6 and two personnel at Station 5. We rely heavily on volunteer response during the weekend to offset the minimal number of paid staffing. As you can see from the attached page, only Station 6 is currently staffed with paid firefighters during the weekend.
How long did it take to get a fire truck on scene?
The call was reported to the 911 Center at 5:35pm and the initial stations were dispatched at 5:36pm. Due to Station 6 being on a call already, Stations 2 and 5 were dispatched. Both of these stations rely on volunteer coverage during the weekend. Our Shift Commander (One of personnel assigned to Station 6) remained at the station while the other two personnel responded to a call in Haynesville. He chose to stay behind to ensure someone was available for the storm that was approaching. When the initial call was dispatched, he responded with Tower 6 (our aerial truck) and was the first on scene at 5:56pm. This response from Highway 247 Spur took 20 minutes in which he faced near blinding conditions due to rain. The fire truck from Station 2 (Closest station to call) was picked up by an off duty paid staff member and responded, arriving at 5:59pm. By 6:10pm additional trucks from Stations 1 and 6 were able to arrive on scene to assist.
What were the initial actions of personnel arriving at the scene?
The first unit on scene was Tower 6. In the video circulating social media you can see a short clip of the first few minutes this truck is on scene. In this video it shows 2 people in shorts and t-shirts moving hose lines around with the residence in the background on fire. One of the people wearing shorts works for a neighboring fire department and was in the area to offer help.
When he realized that only one person was on the initial arriving truck, he began assisting with getting fire hose deployed from the truck along with another resident from the area. The firefighter that arrived in Tower 6 performed an initial assessment of the structure and determined quickly that he needed to use the aerial platform to control this fire. During the video, several volunteer firefighters begin to arrive, you can see them working to ensure the hydrant supply is established and begin to get on the hose lines that were previously deployed by bystanders. Not shown in the video was personnel actively getting Tower 6 set up so that aerial operations could begin. Shortly after the video ends the aerial was used and the fire was contained very quickly. Once the fire was contained, crews were able to go inside with the hose lines seen in the video to complete extinguishment.
In a separate video, posted to the same page, you can see Tower 6 arriving at the hydrant and deploying its supply line. This was done due to the amount of fire witnessed as Tower 6 approached the scene. There was a large number of bystanders near the hydrant when he arrived that offered to assist. This enabled him to continue to the house without any further delay. The second arriving truck was assigned to turn the hydrant on when it arrived However, again thanks to the bystanders,
this was accomplished just prior to that unit’s arrival.
Where do the tax dollars go if not in staffing?
Houston County Fire Department is funded by a Fire Tax that is imposed on properties in the unincorporated areas of Houston County. In other words, if you live in Warner Robins, Centerville, or Perry you pay a general county tax, but you do not have the separate Fire Tax responsibility that citizens in Unincorporated areas do. This Fire Tax is currently set at 1.177 Mills which generates approximately 1.84 million dollars in revenue. Due to the department having this separate millage rate, we are unable to receive funding from the general tax imposed by the County. To offset this, revenues are contributed to the Fire Department budget from the Insurance Premium Tax received by the County. In Fiscal Year 2020 the total operating budget for Houston County Fire Department was 2.689 Million dollars. Of that budget, personnel expenses accounted for approximately 1.75 Million dollars. The remainder of the budget goes towards the maintenance of eight stations, maintenance of all equipment, utilities for each building, and other miscellaneous line items such as fuel, training, small equipment, etc.
Each year we also conduct a fundraiser that enables us to purchase needed equipment that would otherwise be unattainable through tax revenue. Examples of this equipment include Automatic Defibrillators, thermal cameras, and protective clothing for our firefighters.
Volunteers are utilized to offset the cost of personnel and have been since the department was founded. Houston County did not actually have its first paid staffing until 1997. That staffing only provided for coverage of one person at a station Monday-Friday from 8am to 5pm. Since then, we have increased that to our current level due to increases in the number of properties in the County and the contributions of the Insurance Premium Tax. Unfortunately, Volunteerism has had a steady decline in recent years across the nation. Houston County has not been immune to that decline. There are many factors that have led to this to include increased training requirements and increasing call volumes to name a few, both of which require more time to be given by these volunteers. With many people now working two jobs or having an active family life, it is difficult to give away their time.
I would also add that despite the questions raised after this response, Houston County Fire Department has some of the best and most dedicated firefighters in the state. Although staffing numbers may be lower than desired, you will be hard pressed to find a better or harder working group of firefighters.
Christopher Stoner, Chief