Plan suggests combining Durham County’s rural fire districts, contracting with city

CorrespondentFebruary 4, 2014 

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If approved, Bethesda, Parkwood (pictured), Eno and New Hope could be combined into one district, and discussions could begin to contract with the city to provide service there.

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— The Durham County Commissioners will vote Monday on whether to back a study and possible big changes in rural fire protection.

The decision followed a lengthy presentation about the study at last Monday’s commissioners work session by Interim County Manager Lee Worsley. The chief of the Bahama Volunteer Fire Department criticized two important findings of the study.

Some plans for fire service include combining several fire districts and contracting for service with the city of Durham Fire Department.

The study found that as annexation takes in more of the unincorporated areas of the county and cuts into volunteer fire department tax bases, and as Research Triangle Park continues to grow, it will begin to make sense for the city to take more control of fire service in those areas, especially in the current Parkwood and Bethesda districts.

Fighting a fire in RTP requires equipment more typical of a city fire department, Worsley noted.

If approved, Bethesda, Parkwood, Eno and New Hope would be combined into one district, and discussions would begin to contract with the city to provide service there.

The county took over operation of Bethesda last year and ceased operation as an independent nonprofit.

Bahama, Lebanon, Redwood, Moriah and Butner would also be combined into one district.

A consultant recommended the creation of a fire administrator position, but the county staff is instead recommending reclassifying an existing employee to oversee the county fire departments.

The consultant also recommended that volunteer fire department employees be converted to county employees, a move the county is rejecting because contracts can set expectations on hiring, staffing and training to make sure the departments meet county standards, Worsley said.

Staffing levels

Bahama’s chief, Len Needham, took issue with minimum staffing levels.

The Bahama department would have to keep three firefighters at its main station around the clock, plus two firefighters at each of its substations.

Needham said the extra staffing would increase costs for the department.

“It’s a lot of cost to put on the taxpayers,” Needham said.

Needham also took issue with a staff recommendation that would prohibit volunteer departments from putting staffers on their nonprofit boards.

The study dates to the April 12, 2012, meeting of the Durham County Volunteer Chiefs’ Association, which now newly retired County Manager Mike Ruffin attended.

Ruffin requested the fire chiefs’ support to conduct an analysis of fire services in unincorporated areas of the county during fiscal year 2012-13.

The purpose of the study was to determine if alternate methods of organizing fire serves existed, with an emphasis on increased coordination, cost efficiencies, economies of scale and a more consistent level of service countywide.

The fire chiefs unanimously supported Ruffin’s proposal, recommending Solutions for Local Government, Inc., a Charlotte-based firm, to conduct the study.

The county staff met with the fire chiefs from Oct. 16-29 to review recommendations.

Goad: 919-536-8549

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