Hi friends and neighbors –
Thursday evening I attended a meeting to begin Wake County’s emergency services long-range planning process. It was scheduled to go from 5PM to 9PM, and yes they really did go for 4 hours, with only one short break. I took several pages of notes during the meeting. No action is requested yet of my neighbors, other than to stay informed and keep your eyes on what’s going on.
What’s going on?
As many of you know, during the August 2018 Fire Commission meeting they decided to table the ill-advised plan to close our Fairview Fire Station #2, and instead form an administrative committee that will create a study recommending a long-range plan for Wake County emergency services. The meeting I attended this past Thursday was meant to provide guidance to that committee. This was the official meeting agenda.
Who was there?
The meeting was facilitated by Greg Grayson and David Bullins. Greg Grayson is a former Greensboro fire chief.
Attending this meeting were the members of the Wake County Fire Commission, and several fire chiefs (including our Chief Spain from Fairview #2). I saw a couple of members of the Fairview Rural Fire Department board there. I talked briefly with Bob Stagg, who is the administrative sub-committee chair. I believe all the members of the administrative sub-committee are also fire commission members, and were at that meeting.
I also got to meet Mike Legeros, who is an author and historian. You might want to check out Mike’s interesting web site documenting the history of fire services in our county. He also has been blogging about fire services in our county, covering both current and historical events. I wish I had met him sooner!
What was accomplished at the meeting?
Mostly what I heard was a discussion of the problems facing Wake County fire services, with some discussion of goals and plans they would like to accomplish.
What I did not hear or see were concrete next steps nor exactly what the sub-committee’s deliverable is nor an exact timeline. Maybe these things were discussed previously? I do know they have another meeting January 17.
Here were some of the issues they discussed:
- Rapid county population growth
- Call volume going up
- Fire tax revenue not going up as fast as demand on fire and emergency services
- Difficulty recruiting and retaining volunteers
- Although some departments said they are doing well in recruiting. Fairview Fire Department in particular signed up many volunteers in in 2018; they are always looking for more.
- Dissatisfaction with the current cost-sharing model
- Dissatisfaction with the current tax structure and laws regarding fire services, which they feel are outdated
- Lack of ability to gain consensus
- Need for more cooperation and resource sharing between departments
- Desire to eliminate overlap of services
- Desire to optimally place fire stations where they need to be versus “traditional locations”. Some people definitely wanted to close stations.
- Setting a NFPA 1720 as the minimum standard of service and then try to do better than that
- A $1 Million deficit in the fire services budget, and the need to address that in the next six months, probably with a tax increase.
- The need to “sell” a tax increase to the public by providing enough data so they know what the are getting for the money (Matt Calabria was particular insistent about this, wants good data to back up recommendations)
- Several people expressed a desire to better let the public know about the fire services planning process and get their participation
- At the Fire Commission meeting I attended July 2018, I heard Fire Services Director Campasano say he wanted to close Fairview #2 without public input. It’s on the audio recording. Folks, this isn’t rocket science. If you want the public involved, don’t try to close a station quietly without even telling the board of directors of that fire department first. The public only learned about it prior to the July meeting because of a “leak”!
- Being an optimist, I’ll take them at their word and be as involved as I can going forward. I will try to represent my community’s interests and advocate for our welfare. The support my neighbors have expressed to me is much appreciated.
What did I learn that applies to my community?
One of my big questions going into the meeting was whether I was going to be welcome there, or even allowed to attend. It turns out, these are public meetings, and their slides, handouts, and even a full audio recording are posted online (links below.) So yes, citizens can attend.
When the Fire Commission chair, Chief McGee, and County Commissioner Matt Calabria saw me at the meeting (they know me by sight now), they were initially surprised. However, they both cheerfully welcomed me and invited me to attend future planning meetings. Not everyone seemed equally happy to see me, but I won’t try to over-analyze that. I’m hoping that everyone gets used to the idea of citizen involvement, and the idea that we’re here for the long haul.
At this meeting I learned that the way fire services funding works definitely puts residents of county unincorporated areas at a disadvantage compared to the municipalities. The fire commission collects all the county fire tax dollars and then doles them out to the different fire departments as they see fit. However, the county funding is intended to fund only a bare minimum level of service. Municipalities can choose to supplement the county fire tax money they receive with additional money from their own tax revenue, to get more than the bare minimum level of service. Chief McGee gave an example: The county funding is only sufficient to fund having three firefighters on duty at all times at a station, but Apex can supplement that to let them have four firefighters on duty at a time, which enhances firefighter safety among other things. What if Fairview Fire Department would like to have four fighters on duty? They don’t have a municipality to go to for additional funding. Can we do a community fundraiser to enhance firefighter safety? Here is where things get really rotten: Our fire department is not allowed to get additional funding from the community! Last summer when I attempted to donate some of my own money to the fire department, I was advised that the county had locked up tens of thousands of dollars of previous donations in a frozen bank account and wouldn’t allow the fire department to use those funds, so further donations were useless. This definitely treats us as second-class citizens. This is a problem I intend to investigate further.
Another thing I learned was how little data the fire commission has on service quality on a county-wide basis (different departments have different amounts and quality of data). Several times during the meeting I heard from commission members that we don’t know for sure if we even meet the minimum (horrible) NFPA 1720 standard county-wide. And we won’t know for some time, because they won’t be putting the data-gathering equipment on the trucks until this coming spring! And yet commission members were still talking about closing or combining stations. Based on what data? I get the impression there is a lot of guessing going on.
Unfortunately, at least one member of the administrative sub-committee said that they already knew enough because they had a detailed inventory of all the equipment, assets, and personnel of the various fire stations. If it looks like they are going to make a plan without actually knowing what their current service levels are, and without considering impact to current services levels, I will protest. And I’ll invite my neighbors to protest with me. But it’s too early to know yet what they’re actually going to do.
There were printed handouts given to commission members (links to the PDF files below.) Maybe I live in a “high-tech bubble” because of my work writing data analytics software, but printed maps and static PDF files are very old-fashioned. Nowadays this kind of information can be provided dynamically, in a web application that allows you to drill into the data much better. Volunteers sometimes write these apps for the public benefit, using open-source GIS software, but they can’t do so without access to the data.
Over and over I heard the fire-commission members say they’d like to get public buy-in to their long-range plan. Making available the raw data they used in developing the plan would be a great step in that direction. They should publish the fire service datasets on the Wake County Open Data Portal.
Update: I’m aware that we can already get things like this Fire Incidents database, maps of the fire station locations, etc. I want them to publish all the data, especially the new call response time data they are going to gather starting this year, that may be used as part of the planning process.
Here are the slides shown at the meeting.
Here is a link to a recording of the meeting (4 hours and 5 minutes).