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Wide, open stations: Vote will decide if firefighters can be hired

Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips. The three-bay garage at Fire Station No. 30 off of Ozora Road in Loganville remains empty. This station is one of the first green stations in the county, but has remained vacant until officials can figure out how to pay for new firefighters.

Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips. The three-bay garage at Fire Station No. 30 off of Ozora Road in Loganville remains empty. This station is one of the first green stations in the county, but has remained vacant until officials can figure out how to pay for new firefighters.

LOGANVILLE -- For months, as county officials cut costs and slashed budgets, construction crews quietly worked on three fire stations, even though no one planned to hire firefighters to man them.

With the recent rains, the construction schedule -- at least for Station 30 in Loganville -- fell behind, but no one worried. After all, the station would just sit empty.

Last week, certificates of occupancies were issued for two of the three stations.

But they may not be empty for as long as people suspected this summer.

Commissioners will vote today on a proposed tax increase that would allow 66 firefighters to be hired to man the new stations.

"It is a beautiful building. Our vendors do a great job," Fire Chief Bill Myers said during a recent tour of Station 30, which has three big, cavernous bays void of fire engines.

"It's not really about the building," though, Myers added. "It's about the protection in the area. ... It's put here to put as many people within five miles of a station as possible."

In addition to Station 30, the empty buildings are a replacement station for No. 18 in the Hamilton Mill area and Station 29 in the Chateau Elan area. Those two were meant to open in conjunction to divide an area where fire coverage is spread thin.

In the summer, when commissioners said the stations would sit empty because of a budget crisis, calls streamed into the Fire Department and commission offices of people whose fire insurance ratings plummeted by the delay.

Some people are so far away from a fire station that their insurance rating is a class 9, which averages $1,092 a year on a $200,000 home. When the stations open, that rating will improve to a class 4, and rates will drop to $634 a year, said Fire Department spokesman Capt. Thomas Rutledge.

But more important than the money is the ability to save a life.

Success to the Fire Department is being on the scene in six minutes at least 90 percent of the time, the chief said.

Response times in those areas are between nine and 12 minutes, plenty of time for a fire in the kitchen to spread to the living room and beyond, Myers said.

"It could mean the difference between a house (burning) to the ground or not," he said.

Myers and his management team said they are presenting options to commissioners, but if the tax increase passes today, he said the stations won't be open tomorrow.

A fire recruit class is expected to graduate later this month, but those rookies will be needed to fill vacancies left when dozens of firefighters retired earlier this year.

About 30 people are on the department's eligibility roster for hiring who are already trained as emergency medical technicians, which would cut training time in half, and certified firefighters looking for jobs could be sent to the field in weeks.

With the furnishings that have arrived so far in storage and the fire engines and ladder trucks being used as spares, Myers knows the stations will sit empty for a time, as resources are shifted.

With a cost of $5 million needed to fund the stations in the first year of operations (not counting the $7.5 million total it took to build them), officials said they aren't even considering starting the construction of two stations that were next on the list -- Station 31 to be located across from Georgia Gwinnett College and Station 10's relocation to divide coverage with it.

They would be happy to man the stations they have built already.