Volunteers took over county firefighting 10 years ago today

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 1, 2002

Culkin Volunteer Firefighter Trey Smith sharpens the blade of an ax used on the fire truck as part of routine equipment maintenance at the station Monday. (The Vicksburg Post/Melanie Duncan)

[10/01/02]Ten years ago today, a network of volunteers accepted the job of fighting fires in Warren County outside Vicksburg.

Kelley Worthy, coordinator of the effort, says he’s pleased.

“Given a level playing field, I’ll put our people up against anybody,” Worthy said.

Although the fledgling departments had been forming and working before 1992, it was the failure of city-county negotiations that fall that led to the handoff. For generations before, Vicksburg fire equipment and personnel had been dispatched countywide. In the last few years before the split, Warren County supervisors had been handing over their state fire insurance premium rebate to the City of Vicksburg. It was $66,000 in 1991, and city officials said that wasn’t enough.

Breaking off from the city wasn’t a tremendous step, Worthy said, because by that time, the county already had the beginnings of a volunteer network.

“LeTourneau began as a company department,” Worthy said. Offshore oil rigs are built at the plant off U.S. 61 and, at the time, many miles from a city crew. The LeTourneau department received a state charter in 1973.

Following was Culkin Volunteer Fire Department, which had been chartered since 1983. Since, the Fisher Ferry, Northeast, Bovina and Eagle Lake Departments were organized.

“We cover all of the county,” Worthy said.

Through everything from bake sales to federal and state grants, the departments now have nearly two dozen pieces of apparatus including pumpers and tankers and brush trucks.

Unlike the days when a giant bell or telephone party lines were activated to summon volunteers, each department’s personnel men and women carry beepers that are activated from the 911 dispatch center. Someone gets a truck or trucks and others respond from wherever they happen to be.

Among the departments there are between 85 and 100 trained volunteers who can be called on at any one time, Worthy said.

The breakoff from the city has saved some county residents money. While municipal trucks were responding, the Culkin area northeast of Vicksburg had a Class 10 or “no protection” rating for fire insurance premium purposes. Culkin now has an 8 rating and Bovina is a 9.

Funding is a continuing issue, however. Since 1992 when the county was paying the city $66,000, the rebate has risen to about $100,000 per year. The county also adds another $80,000, but Worthy said that does not go very far given that basic fire trucks cost $140,000 to $150,000, and it costs more than $3,700 to equip a single firefighter with turnout gear, air pack, radio, boots, helmet, gloves and hood.

There have been many donations, including from the City of Vicksburg, and fund raising efforts continue as does training.

Worthy said some may have considered volunteer departments as a bunch of folks who run to a fire and just start spraying water. Not so, he said.

“Our minimum is two hours of training a month, and some of our departments exceed that,” he said.

Chuck Tate has been with the Culkin department for years and was chief in 1992.

“I’m now back to captain and grinning all the time,” he laughed.

Tate said the county departments’ challenges are learning to fight fires without the unlimited supply of water available from municipal hydrants and attracting and keeping personnel. Worthy said people become members and stay for a while. Then their personal or family situations change or they get another job that prevents them from participating.

“Freed” from sending fire trucks to outlying areas, the theory was the Vicksburg Fire Department would need fewer employees and less equipment and that the state’s rating of the city operation would improve. None of those has occurred. Vicksburg remains rated a 5 for insurance premium calculations.

And city crews will be dispatched outside the corporate limits under certain circumstances. One example is that there is an informal agreement for city personnel and equipment to be dispatched to alarms at schools countywide. Another is that River Region Medical Center has a contract and pays the city to respond to fire alarms there.