Officials: Fire coordinator’s job should be left as is

Published 11:58 pm Friday, June 1, 2012

Turning the fire coordinator’s job in Warren County into more of a clerical than hands-on job could stop at least two possible candidates from applying for it.

Robert Pell, chief at LeTourneau Volunteer Fire Department, said the job does a lot more than meets the eye and shouldn’t be moved into the Emergency Management Agency, even if it means saving the cost of another full-time salary. The post was officially vacant Thursday with Kelly Worthy’s retirement.

“I’d like to see it left like it is,” Pell said. “It’s very important position to the volunteer fire departments.”

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In the past, Pell said, the coordinator has taken time out to run vital errands for the volunteers, many of whom have day jobs. Taking paperwork to the Mississippi State Fire Academy in Pearl or delivering a fire truck to be repaired might end if the fire coordinator is also operations officer in EMA, a move supervisors say could save the $34,000 annual salary of a separate second-in-command. Currently, the coordinator also carries the title of environmental officer, which manages lawful garbage collection and disposal, and sits on the E-911 Commission.

“It would save us a lot of legwork, instead of two people taking off work to do it,” Pell said.

Jerry Briggs, a 15-year volunteer in the Culkin volunteer district and its chief since 2009, said he might not apply if county supervisors move the position to another office. Vacant for the past year, the person in the operations officer post acts as a deputy director who drafts reports and deals with grant applications.

“Our fire coordinator is typically out in the field, not at a desk,” Briggs said, “There’s more options the county can do to save money. It’s beyond what we’re used to — and the personnel I’d see for operations officer is not the same person I’d see as a fire coordinator.”

Supervisors are expected to discuss the issue Monday when they next meet formally. They received one application when the job was advertised internally in May, from an employee in the Detention Center, and was deemed ineligible, County Administrator John Smith said. State law mandates counties hire a fire coordinator who is either a volunteer or municipal firefighter. Earlier this week, supervisors appeared OK with choosing someone from a pool of applicants based on an advertisement that would allow the board to assign the person to any number of departments under its own purview.

Chiefs have not been in the room as supervisors discussed in May the job’s future, particularly the garbage angle. For now, the board has backed away from asking for proposals to unify weekly trash pickup under a single hauler, apparently reacting to resistance from people who have used family-run garbage businesses for years.

Another part of the “combo” idea is to hand field duties associated with garbage collection to the county’s permitting officer, Reed Birdsong.

Board President Bill Lauderdale said he has spoken with Pell, “the one down in my district,” sparingly on the topic in the weeks leading up to Worthy’s retirement.

“I listened to his thoughts and concerns about it,” Lauderdale said, adding the vacancy could complicate how the county deals with illegal garbage dumps. He couldn’t predict if a firm decision on how to structure the job will come Monday. “We really need to, though.”

Volunteer firefighters with solid jobs in the private sector may stay away. Base pay for the post is $42,000.

“I’m not applying for it because I’d take too much of a pay cut,” said Tommy Stewart, chief of the Fisher Ferry Volunteer Fire Department and a Vicksburg firefighter. “I also have a grass-cutting business on the side.”

Bovina Volunteer Fire Department chief Ken Whittington said he hasn’t applied for the position. Others in the ranks, such as Northeast Volunteer Fire Department Chief Tom Wardlaw, are retirees once already.

“I’m not going to apply,” said Wardlaw, an Army Corps of Engineers retiree.