[Note: the following story focuses on the Graham fire chief’s request for additional 18 more firefighters (doubling size of department), as well as wanting two fire department substations. See for an overview of police, fire department, recreation, and other stated needs here: https://alamancenews.com/graham-10-more-policemen-8-more-firefighters-2-more-fire-stations-are-chiefs-top-priorities/]
Graham fire chief Tommy Cole (no relation to the police chief with the same last name) is asking for at least four new firefighters and as many as 18, especially if the city council authorizes the construction of two satellite fire stations in the southeast and southwest portion of the city, which he said are badly needed. Each position would cost $62,000 each.
The fire chief said the fire department is “busting at the seams” within the 6,500 square feet it occupies at the back of city hall.
The fire department currently uses three engines and one tower ladder, he said. Fire trucks are on a 20-year life rotation, he said, noting that one will need to be replaced in the next fiscal year in order to remain on schedule. The cost for a new truck can range from $600,000 to almost $1 million, he described, depending on the specific features it has.
The chief also focused on the staffing at the department.
“The fire department has not grown in any full-time positions in at least 20 years,” the fire chief said.
One of the biggest increases in the city’s fire call volumes, the chief noted, was the additional of priority medical calls over the past year. More than half (773) of the 1,428 calls responded to by the fire department in 2020 were medical calls, while regular fire calls remained fairly steady – 655 compared to 600 in 2018, according to statistics the fire chief presented.
He touted the life-saving results from running medical calls, saying that the public was very appreciative of the immediacy of fire department response, which he said had included a number of “cardiac life saves.”
The chief said, however, that medical calls are screened for potential COVID exposure, and that the department does not make calls to known COVID locations.
Cole warned of the “aging” of the fire department, particularly of the volunteers.
“Volunteerism is declining,” and the “core group” of volunteers is increasingly retiring, he said.
“Our staffing needs do not meet the needs of our city based on population,” the chief said, citing staffing standards of the National Fire Protection Association.
Response time and travel distances also exceed recommended levels, the fire chief said.
The chief said the national recommended average number of firefighters to respond to a house fire is 16, while Graham averaged having 12 in 2020, or 75 percent of the recommended level.
Fee for re-inspections
The fire chief also suggested that the city should consider instituting a fee for re-inspections when the fire inspector inspects local businesses, if the original problems are not fixed, and the businesses do not come into compliance.
Inspection and re-inspection should be done at no cost, he said, but any subsequent re-inspections should be charged a new fee, he recommended.
New fire stations
The fire department needs two satellite fire stations, the fire chief told the council members. Currently, Graham has only one station – at city hall – which he described as “small and outdated,” particularly with regard to newer equipment (fire trucks) that he said are needed.
The fire chief said some mutual aid fire departments feel like they are supplementing “our low staffing levels” by responding to fires in Graham, the chief said.
The chief said a study done on the fire department’s coverage found that only 60.9 percent of the city can be reached within four minutes, which he said is the national standard.
The chief recommended satellite stations in the Rogers Road area between Moore Street and the South Graham park area and along East Harden Street (NC 54) between Ivey Road and near the city’s wastewater plant.
The chief recommended satellite stations that would be about the size of Elon’s relatively new fire station, located on Powerline Road. Each would cost about $2.5 million to build, he said, with $6.5 million included in the proposed departmental budget request, which would include land purchase, architectural fees, etc.
“We’re two years out,” he said, from being able to be in a new satellite fire station.
To hire the additional staff – he listed a total of 18 positions – needed both at the downtown fire department as well as two possible satellites would cost over $1.2 million, he said, acknowledging that such a level could trigger a 10-cent property tax increase. “We know that’s not going to happen,” he said.
However, he suggested that the city consider applying for various grants, although he acknowledged that one current grant provides initial funding for about three years – after which the city would ultimately be expected to finance the positions after that point.
“Now is a wonderful opportunity,” the chief said, to apply for a grant, if, he stressed, the city would be willing to pick up the full expense of the new firefighters after three years.
See also the newspaper’s editorial comments on the budget requests, entitled “Budget games”: https://alamancenews.com/budget-games/