Commissioners could require residents in unincorporated area to pay Chatham Fire subscription

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CHATHAM COUNTY, Ga. (WSAV) – Chatham County commissioners are considering an ordinance that would require all citizens in the unincorporated area to pay for private fire services.

Chatham Emergency Services is a not for profit department that relies strictly on community subscriptions. The CEO, Chuck Kearns, says only a third of residents in the unincorporated area have not subscribed for this public safety service. It just changed its billing system a year ago, charging residents based on their property value.

“We were stunned to discover that 41% of all the fires we fight in this county are on land: Brushfire, ground fire, tree on fire because a power line hit them, so why should that be free?” said Chief Kearns.

District 1 Chatham County Commissioner Helen Stone said she has been receiving multiple phone calls, emails and texts from concerned residents about a spike in their subscription fee. She herself received a bill for $500.

Stone believes that fire services should be available to all residents in the county. However, she said she would like more transparency when it comes to how Chatham Emergency Services assesses their rates.

“Someone might have a very small house on a riverfront piece of property and be paying a whole lot more than someone down the street that’s not on the river and a house that might be three times the size of the smaller house,” said the District 1 commissioner.

Kearns told News 3 that they have received information from the database of the Chatham County Board of Assessors to determine people’s property value. He said they are hiring more firefighters and purchasing additional water tenders to respond to areas without fire hydrants.

Johnny Hinton, a Chatham County resident and the president of the Savannah Professional Firefighters Association, said he wants his neighbors to better understand where their money is going before commissioners greenlight the fee.

“They’re saying that they cannot adequately provide EMS services throughout the entire county and they’re now requesting help from area fire departments,” said Hinton. “So while all of that is going on, they’re also asking for more money.”

Hinton is referring to an email sent from Chatham County EMS last week, requesting support from area fire departments:

EMS and the Dispatch Center face challenges associated with both increased call volume and COVID related issues. In order to maximize our effectiveness, we are soliciting support from our partners for help in managing response functions. (…) By assisting with these efforts, we are more able to maintain appropriate EMS unit availability while providing the best response to a patient’s needs.

Kearns said the memo is designed to slow unnecessary EMS lights and sirens responses that he says endanger the lives of pedestrians and drivers when the patient is not in immediate life-threatening danger.

However, Hinton believes the email indicates a deeper problem.

He said that soliciting help takes away resources from other municipalities, including Savannah, Port Wentworth, Garden City and Pooler, where he believes firefighters offer a higher-quality service than the one Chatham Fire can provide.

Hinton said that according to the NFPA 1710 — Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, EMS, and Special Operations in Career Fire Departments — fire departments are expected to arrive eight minutes after the initial fire alarm and with at least 15 firefighters. He said that Savannah Fire meets this standard, responding to a structure fire with at least five trucks, four firefighters on each.

He believes, from what he’s witnessed as a Savannah firefighter, that Chatham Fire does not meet this standard — also considering a large chunk of the department is made up of volunteers, with responsibilities apart from the job.

Kearns said that only a third of their firefighters are volunteers. When asked about the subscription rate, he said, “you can’t compare us with Savannah Fire.”

“Our total fire department budget is 10.2 million dollars,” he continued. “We operate 14 fire stations for that. Savannah Fire’s budget is $35 million, and they operate 15 fire stations. There is no comparison.”

Hinton said he would just like to educate his fellow county residents about how their funds will be utilized and encourage them to ask questions.

Kearns sent News 3 a UGA Carl Vincent Institute of Government Study published in October 2018 about the fire service. His highlights regarding the department are on pages 32-36.

A public survey on the proposed subscription is expected to be released by county commissioners in the next couple of days.

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