When a big fire occurs in Garner, the Raleigh Fire Department sends three firefighters to help.
That move was part of a verbal agreement created between both fire departments’ former chiefs years ago, that the current Raleigh fire chief says he will put an end to. It’s move that could cost Garner taxpayers either $500,000, or a lower level of service.
In a letter written to Garner Fire Chief Matt Poole, Raleigh Fire Chief John McGrath said the fire department there will no longer respond in support of the GFD, effective July 1.
“As you may recall, our response to the City of Garner was a temporary agreement which was supposed to be terminated upon completion of Station #4,” the letter reads. “Due to increased call volumes and workload in the service areas of the units that are responding into Garner, the Raleigh Fire Department cannot compromise the level of care that is afforded to our residents.”
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In his letter, McGrath says his department will respond on a case by case basis, for extraordinary circumstances or events. Poole said he requested the Raleigh Fire Department give them 12 months to prepare for the change, but McGrath gave them four because he felt Raleigh’s call volume was too high.
“I’m not sure where it came from, but he was adamant about it,” Poole said.
This news puts the town council in a tough predicament: Either fund more firefighters, which could raise taxes, or risk longer response times to calls and less qualified help.
It also comes at a time when the town council recently agreed to bump up the salaries of GFD employees to market value over the next two years.
“I did not want to bring this problem to you, especially not this year,” Poole told the town council. “It was dropped on my lap on March 2, 2016, and there’s nothing that I can do about it.
“I’m out of playing cards.”
The fire department’s current deployment model to structural-related calls requires 15 trained and qualified personnel to respond to a scene. That responders are required to have North Carolina Emergency Medical Technician certifications, as well as a North Carolina Firefighter Level II certificate.
Each of Garner’s five fire crews is made up of three members, except one which is made up of four members. When a structural-related call comes in, Garner usually sends 12 firefighters, and Raleigh will send three. That way, three firefighters can be free if another fire or incident occurs.
“One thousand times per year we have duplicate or overlapping calls,” Poole said. “That detrimentally impacts the level of service we’re able to provide the citizens.”
Their immediate solution would be to enlist help from surrounding fire departments like Fairview, Swift Creek, Fuquay-Varina and others, which are further away. Some of those departments, such as Fairview and Swift Creek, are manned by volunteer firefighters who don’t have the same certifications.
The GFD could deploy all of its firefighters to a scene and call on those other departments to handle any overlapping calls, but the same problems persist.
The GFD currently has 55 employees, including administrators. Poole said doing nothing could drop the level of service, which would in turn affect the business community. Fire premiums would increase.
To address the issue and keep the same level of service, the fire department would have to add at least nine more employees, three per shift, over the next 12 months, Poole said.
Poole estimates it would cost the town $500,000 to pay for that many positions.
The town council agreed they didn’t want to level of service to drop, but they were not happy about how much it would cost. The Town plans to ask Wake County if it would be willing to pay its cost share and ask Raleigh to extend its deadline on when they will cease helping the GFD.
“We ain’t going to spend $500,000, I can tell you that,” council member Gra Singleton said.