By Andrew Wilkins
Chattanooga Times Free Press
TRENTON, Tenn. — The new policy of Trenton-Dade County Fire department to staff two firefighters during the week paid for itself the day it began, Jan. 1, said Alex Case, the city’s mayor and Emergency Management Agency director.
On that day, a call came in about a self-inflicted gunshot wound at Trenton’s Subway restaurant. Both ambulances were on a call, so Case said he and another firefighter took the city’s spare truck and transported the victim to meet a paramedic unit. The victim survived.
“It paid for itself with a life saved,” Case said in a phone interview.
Firefighters sign up for two paid shifts during the week, he said, to help supplement the city’s mostly-volunteer 18- to 20-person Fire Department. Those shifts pay $15 an hour, Case said, while the city’s other volunteers are paid per call.
The new policy is helping boost staffing during the day, when volunteer firefighters are working their full-time jobs, said Ansel Smith, assistant fire chief.
“It’s (for) all our volunteers,” Smith said in a phone interview. “They get to sign up for different shifts throughout the month. We opened it up to all our volunteers.”
Protecting life is the Fire Department’s most important goal, Case said, and the second-most important goal is protecting property. More consistent staffing during the week will help lower the city’s rate with the Insurance Services Office, a federal rating agency that helps set property insurance rates.
Case said Trenton’s Insurance Services Office rate is a four, but he would like to get down to a three. The department had done well with other factors in the score — water access, training, equipment, 911 services — but staffing has been a problem because the department relies on volunteers, he said.
The Insurance Services Office rates one paid firefighter as equal to three volunteers, Case said, because the paid firefighter can respond faster. Case said a lower Insurance Services Office rate could significantly reduce insurance costs for taxpayers.
Smith also said that since Trenton-Dade County Fire has offered volunteers a chance to sign up for the paid shifts, it’s helped increase participation and recruitment. During their shift, Case said those paid part-time firefighters can work on other duties required for the department’s Insurance Services Office rating, taking pressure off volunteer firefighters.
Case said the department has been researching the addition of shift firefighters for two years, and two months of training were conducted before January’s start date. Other regional departments in Rossville, LaFayette and Catoosa County have part-time paid shifts as well, he said.
Both Smith and Case said a lot is asked from the volunteer firefighters. Volunteer firefighters are often busy on the weekends, have training every Thursday and have to venture out in cold weather and storms, so Case said city officials want to take good care of them.
Trenton-Dade County Fire is still recruiting volunteers for their one station serving the city, Smith said, and the seven fully volunteer-staffed stations throughout the county. Smith said times have changed and people don’t want to volunteer without pay. Case agreed.
“We just don’t have enough people,” Case said. “It’s a nationwide problem, even for some large, paid departments — they’re shutting stations down.”
The department would love to have more volunteer firefighters, but Case said God, family, fire is the ranking of priorities Fire Department leadership emphasizes to its firefighters — and a lot of people can’t take the time to serve.
Case said his father was a firefighter, and the current fire chief’s father formed Trenton-Dade County Fire in 1958. While honoring that legacy, Case said the department is helping to train the next generation through a junior firefighters program associated with the Boy Scouts of America and Girl Scouts of the USA.
Also for the future, Case said city and county officials are working on building a training facility where firefighters can train, including live instruction in a burning structure. At that training facility, Case said another satellite fire station is planned to fill a gap in fire coverage.
Case said a training facility is another important addition that would help lower the community’s Insurance Services Office rating.
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