Amid a volunteer firefighter shortage, Montgomery Co. and others explore switching to a paid department

Montgomery County Volunteer Fire
Posted at 5:01 PM, Aug 02, 2022

MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Tenn. (WTVF) — Living out in the county usually means a slower pace. That can be ideal, except for an emergency.

"We’d like to be there in less than eight minutes, but typically for us, we can’t be," said Ed Baggett, the Montgomery County Volunteer Fire Chief.

That's because — even though unincorporated Montgomery County is growing just as fast as the rest of the region, with the exception of Clarksville city limits — the rest of the county relies on several volunteer fire departments.

"Some of the stations were hitting 4-500 calls per year, we’ve got stations now that are hitting over 800 calls per year," said Baggett.

Due to the fact that Montgomery County is relying on volunteers, only a handful of the fire halls can be staffed full time.

"We need to be better than a volunteer fire department," said Montgomery County Mayor Jim Durrett.

Durrett wants to see the county transition over from a volunteer force to at least a partially paid department. But that won't be a simple task.

"It’s going to be a difficult lift for Montgomery County government," said Durrett.

County leaders will have to consider everything from expanding fire hydrant access to taking control of the fire halls themselves.

"All of that has to be transferred to Montgomery County. So do you have to pay for it, do you not? All of those things have to be worked through as well," said Durrett.

Then there's how you pay for it.

"I think you would have to create some type of fire tax district, and I think you could show the public what they’re paying, the service that they’re getting would be well worth it," he said.

Durrett thinks it's well worth it because if fire response gets faster, considered an ISO rating, it could save homeowners money on their home insurance.

"We’d be working on things to make water more available so I think we’d see our ISO rating go down as well," he said.

Ultimately what happens next is up to the future Mayor of Montgomery County. Durrett chose not to run again, and his successor will be elected this Thursday.

But speaking as a soon-to-be citizen, Durrett says, they can't afford a slower pace.

"Are people willing to pay for that? I certainly would be and I think most people would be as well," he said.

A statewide issue

Montgomery County isn't the only area struggling to recruit volunteer firefighters. Williamson County is currently 280 volunteers short.

"We have to look at what’s best for Williamson and the entire community," said Bill Jorgensen, Public Safety Director of Williamson County. "We need to look at EMS, too. Between 60 to 70% of calls are medical. But when you have a structure fire, the response to those you need more than two in and two out. You might need 20 to 25 fire departments. I am looking at this all the time. But for everyone who sat down and last discussed it, it was 2010. The delivery of those critical services we need to focus on that."

The Winchester Fire Department has adopted a hybrid model, where they hire firefighters and but the county relies on volunteers for the rest. Gary Greeson, the Winchester Fire Chief, says they are struggling too.

"We are graded by ISO. Depending on manpower, it will determine the number of people they would like for us to see to give us a better grade. There are a lot of moving parts. Here in the city limits, our number is 26. We have 14 paid men and women on duty. Out of five new, you’ll find one that will stick. Getting that is tough. You used to have them standing in line. You don’t have that anymore. People just don’t want to do it. Franklin County is really struggling. They probably don’t have 10 on staff that could possibly show up. We are automatic aide because they don’t have the manpower to even respond. What we are finding is finding on structure fires we are automatic aide, we are usually doing 95% of the firefighting. Our primary responsibility is the city. We hold enough staff to do that here, and we send additional resources we can manage without. We have direct routes into those communities," said Greeson.

Giles County is also struggling with a shortage with miles to cover.

"We have 50 people on our roster," said Bill Myers, fire chief for Giles County. "Approximately 20 are active members. We have seven fire stations across 600 square miles. We need 70 active members. It’s difficult but understandable. Life is just extremely busy with family and work and church. We kind of tell people we should be fourth on the list behind faith, family and employment. We could talk for hours. I will say we are excited about a grand program we have received through FEMA and was provided to the Tennessee Fire Chiefs Association for a recruitment and retention program that is just now beginning. They aren’t providing funds but guidance and materials. Fifteen counties are involved. I think it will pay dividends."