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Future of volunteer fire department up in air

As work begins to establish a city fire department in Cedarville, there is concern over the future of the area’s volunteer fire department.

Cedarville aldermen approved a measure to establish a city fire department during their regular monthly meeting May 13. Currently the city is served by the Crawford County Volunteer Fire Department District 4.

Discussion in the city over starting their own fire department started two years ago, said Mayor Glenanna O’Mara. It was two years ago when a disagreement over a volunteer who was asked to leave the fire department caused tension between the two groups.

At the time of the disagreement, District 4 moved out - or was kicked out, depending on who you ask - of the city fire house where they kept their trucks and much of their equipment.

“We had to have a contingency plan of what if they didn’t come back,” said Alderman Vince Connelly. “It was always our plan to get them back in that building.”

Though District 4 members have since moved back in and signed a lease with the city, things have been uneasy between the two groups since.

Now city officials are making moves toward starting a city fire department, and some are not sure District 4 will survive it.

Les Jenkins, Crawford County Fire Service Coordinator, is concerned that District 4 will be losing a large portion of its funding.

“They’re going to lose half their population and they’re supported by membership dues from that population, so it’s going to cut their funding in half, roughly,” Jenkins said.

District 4 has a total population of 2,594 residents, Jenkins said. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Cedarville residents total 1,394, about 54 percent of those living in District 4.

District fire departments also receive a portion of the county’s Public Safety Fund, which is financed through the county sales tax. The portion going to the volunteer fire departments is population-based, which means all departments will see less money from the county.

Jenkins admitted that District 4 may save some money in fuel costs by not doing regular runs in the area.

Another issue is Cedarville’s location, almost direct center of District 4. If Cedarville creates their own fire department, it will cut out the heart of the district, Jenkins said.

But O’Mara and Connelly said that is not the city’s intention.

“I have said from the start that we want to work with them,” Connelly said. “We’re not trying to replace them, we’re trying to add to what’s there.”

With the growing population - 23 percent since 2000 - O’Mara feels it is important for the city to have its own department, she said.

Thompson Lane, where a subdivision is located within city limits, is preparing for the construction of 19 new homes, and businesses are looking to open new branches in the city, O’Mara said.

“All these things will necessitate more coverage,” O’Mara said.

Connelly feels another department in Cedarville will help District 4 cover their area, which currently consists of 94 square miles that spreads to either side of Cedarville and includes Cove City and 88.

“They’re spread out; I don’t know how they cover the area that they do,” Connelly said.

At a recent commissioner’s meeting, Jenkins made the suggestion that District 4 be dissolved, and the area be split between other local fire districts. There would be no concern for residents because all of the districts maintain a low ISO rating, he said. But Andy Jones, fire chief for District 4, was against the idea, Jenkins said.

“In my opinion, it’s the logical solution,” Jenkins said.

Jones was appointed the position about three years ago, Jenkins said. At the time the ISO rating, which affects insurance rates, was a 9. A rating of 6 went into effect in August 2012, he said.

According to the Arkansas Forestry Commission handbook, the insurance rate per year for a $100,000 frame home under an ISO rating of 9 is $977; under a rating of 7 it is $676.

Though the handbook doesn’t give the rate for a rating of 6, it is safe to say the homeowner is saving around 40-50 percent.

Because an ordinance was passed officially recognizing the establishment of a city fire department, District 4 will no longer officially service Cedarville once the dues run out Aug. 1, Jenkins said.

After that point, if District 4 responds to a fire in the city limits, the resident will be charged for service, he said.

According to an email from Robert Andrews, Vice President of Community Mitigation for ISO, Cedarville’s public protection classification (PPC), or ISO rating, will not change while the city is in the six-month process of establishing its department.

Once a field survey is conducted, a new PPC will be designated for Cedarville, Andrews said.

Council members have set aside $5,000 in a fund to help with the establishment of the fire department, to go toward grant writing and training, O’Mara said.

While it is a start, Jenkins said the city will need a consistent flow of funds to continue to operate the department. Jenkins estimated a cost of at least $250,000 for an independent city, though it was unclear what that cost would include.

“They are going to have a difficult time and eventually it’s going to work out, but they are going to need a lot more money,” Jenkins said.

Adding services can only be positive, O’Mara said. The city already has a fire house and some equipment, she said. She has received at least 12 applications for the volunteer firefighter positions and several offers of equipment donations, as well, she said.

“If there’s a way we can double our equipment that is in the area now over the next few years, why would anybody not want to do this?” O’Mara asked.

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