Whitfield County Fire Chief Edward O'Brien says just a couple of weeks ago a fire engine responded to a wreck with injuries on I-75.
"We had a young engineer whose lieutenant was off that day, so he was acting as the officer as well as the guy who drives the truck," O'Brien said. "He had a firefighter with him. Our priority was the people who were injured. But he had other engines on the way, dispatch asking questions, but he was busy doing CPR, and he felt like he wasn't doing his job on command because he was taking care of the patient. If we had a third person, he could have been supervising, talking on the radio, giving updates to incoming units while firefighters did CPR. When we need people, we need a lot of them."
O'Brien asked the members of the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners at a budget workshop Thursday night to consider a 10-year plan to bring the number of firefighters at each of the county's 12 stations up to three on every shift from the current two. The county would have to add 57 firefighters to do that.
O'Brien asked the commissioners to consider starting that process by adding six firefighters in 2021, which would bring the department to 116 firefighters.
"The National Fire Protection Agency, NFPA, recommendation is actually for a four-person engine," he said. "That gives you a supervisor to manage the scene, an engineer to drive the truck, and firefighters to do the work. The NFPA also says for a residential structure fire you need 16 to 17 firefighters. With us running two-people trucks, we need seven or eight stations to come to one fire. If we had more staffing, we could send fewer stations."
Six firefighters would provide the department enough to add a third firefighter on every shift at two stations. O'Brien said it would cost roughly $350,000 to add six firefighters, including benefits, equipment and training.
It has been five years since commissioners approved funding to add enough firefighters to bring all of the stations up to two firefighters on every shift.
"I remember that for many years, we used to send these trucks out with just one firefighter," said board Chairman Lynn Laughter.
"It might take us a while (to bring the department up to three firefighters per shift)," said Commissioner Barry Robbins.
O'Brien also asked commissioners for a 3,000-gallon water tender.
"If we have a car fire or truck fire on the interstate, we use them there," said O'Brien. "There are no hydrants on the interstate. Also, we have a lot of structures that are over a thousand feet off the road. That's more hose than we carry on one truck. We can lay out several and hook them up, but that takes time. This truck can pull up to the front and give them plenty of water, so they can make an attack, while we hook the hoses up for additional water."
The county currently has three water tenders, but commissioners have agreed to sell at surplus a 1985 tender and a 1990 tender.
"That leaves us one that's a 1995 model," said O'Brien
He said a new water tender would cost about $675,000.
O'Brien noted that he asked the members of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) citizens advisory committee last year to include funding for three new tenders but they were not included on the list of projects to be funded from the four-year, $66 million SPLOST approved by voters in June.
The workshop was an opportunity for county department heads and constitutional officers to present their 2021 budget requests. Commissioners made no decisions.
More budget workshops
The Whitfield County Board of Commissioners will hold additional 2021 budget workshops on Tuesday and Thursday at 5:30 p.m. in the Wells Fargo building, fifth floor, in the large conference room, at 201 S. Hamilton St. The workshops are open to the public.