MADISON COUNTY, Ala. (WHNT) - When Madison County Commissioners adopted the 2015 budget Wednesday they decided to dissolve the full-time county fire marshal position. This will take effect when current county fire marshal Bobby Rollins retires in January, leaving 2 deputy marshals.
The commission will use Rollins' salary toward the nearly $190,000 cost of 8 new full-time firefighters.
Mike Messex, President of the Madison County Association of Volunteer Fire Departments, the responsibility of identifying and investigating arson cases must now fall solely on part-time deputies or the state fire marshal, Ed Paulk. Individual county fire chiefs must now make the call on whether to involve the state in investigations. Ed Paulk already oversees 23 deputy fire marshals in 66 other counties across the state.
"Fire chiefs now are responsible for making a determination of whether or not they consider that scene an arson case and whether they want to pursue an arson investigation," Messex says.
He explains the issue with that responsibility falling in the laps of part-time deputy marshals is that once a scene is determined to be criminal in nature, a deputy must maintain constant security and control of the scene and related chain of evidence until a state representative arrives; there's no tapping out for dinner time or, more accurately, a day job.
During debate over relegating fire marshal responsibilities at Wednesday's commission meeting the point was made that any defense attorney would love nothing more than to be dealing with testimony of an inexperienced or under-certified deputy marshal.
"We have spoken to the state fire marshal and he says he can handle Madison County just like he handles 66 other counties in the state of Alabama," says Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong.
Strong says the commission feels the state will be able to handle the law enforcement and prosecution of anyone who participates in an arson situation. He says he wants to establish some protocols to follow when a fire-related death or fire of suspicious origin occurs in Madison County.
"We have to continue to evaluate this constantly," says Strong of his comprehensive plan to keep the 'best fire insurance ratings' in the state. That's where things get a little complicated and go beyond the general knowledge of the masses; those without fire training and certification.
County residents' property insurance rates are based in part on ISO (Insurance Service Organization) ratings. The ISO evaluates the capabilities of fire districts, annually.
ISO 'grades' departments in areas of communication, district water supply systems, and the fire department as a whole; looking at response times, equipment, certifications, record keeping and whether personnel are properly trained for the jobs they do.
Scores from these areas add up to an available 100 points. A fourth stand -alone category worth 5.5 'bonus' points evaluates a district's 'community risk reduction' program; compliance with current fire codes, development of fire plans, business and school inspections and the level at which departments conduct public fire education.
Messex argues those in the 8 new county fire positions will be fulfilling a mostly administrative role. He says historically, 80% of calls they will respond to will be medical in nature; a category which has no bearing whatever on ISO rating calculations.
"An EMS call is not considered a scorable event for ISO," explains Messex.
He says potential diminished capability within the risk reduction program poses several natural questions about ability to perform:
"Do we inspect annually, all businesses? Do we comply with our fire codes? Do we have public education? Are the public education individuals certified? Are the fire investigators certified?," Messex asks.
While Dale Strong says the county fire departments do a 'phenomenal job,' he says the 24 month pilot program and professional services contract resulting in 8 new firefighter hires is a way of 'looking toward the future' in Madison County.
The chairman points out in the last budget the commission approved the installation of new fire hydrants and more than 15 miles of new water lines in the county.
"This will help hundreds and hundreds of homes so they will get a lower fire insurance rating," Strong claims. "Now what we're doing is, these 8 persons will be more than just firefighters and paramedics or EMTs. They are going to be the people who make sure the ISO paper work is done appropriately, they're going to be doing the fire plug testing, their going to be doing pre-fire planning in our structures -- and it could also lead to doing some fire prevention with some of our younger students in the schools."
Messex says the potential ramifications from the change will not be immediately apparent, but could affect ratings on a long-term basis.
"We'll just keep doing business like we're doing and try to perform the best we can for the community," Messex assures.
"This is a huge step in the right direction," Strong says. "It has been talked about for many, many years."
Strong says the target date for having new firefighters in county volunteer department is February with a hope to effect the change as early as January 2015.