Despite funding issues and a shortage in equipment, Starkville Fire Department has been able to meet the standards of the Mississippi Ratings Bureau required to obtain a rating of 5, and SFD Chief Rodger Mann said the department is on the verge of improving to a rating of 4.
Mann said on a rating system of 1 to 10, with each numeral having three sub-classes, a lower number on the scale reflects the prices of premiums residents have to pay on fire insurance.
“We are considered a low 5 but on the threshold of accomplishing a 4. Going from step 5 to 4 is a time-consuming process; a couple more things have to happen before we can reach that level,” he said. “I’m confident we can get to a 4. It’s just whether we can get to a middle 4 or a high 4.”
Mann said the MRB looks at several facilities within the city alongside its fire department to determine its rating.
“(The board considers) the city’s 911 setup capabilities, (and) they go into the water department and look at the size of mains, pressures and flows — all of the aspects you consider from a water supply standpoint,” he said. “They also look at building codes and how they’re implemented. Inside the fire department, they’ll look at facilities, equipment, training and implementation of codes.”
Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk said she believes Mann has done an exceptional job managing the department’s issues while ensuring it provides the safety and service Starkville citizens need.
“I thought Chief Mann did a really good job of enumerating the problems our department has faced. He’s correct that the department has issues with its limited budget. He has managed through the years to cobble together enough of the (materials and manpower) required to obtain a rating of 5,” Sistrunk said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about how (the city) provides a fire department that keeps us as safe as reasonably possible on a tight budget. Our fire department does an excellent job of providing that amount of safety. We’re a fortunate community to have people serving who are as professional as they are.”
One factor that could help SFD’s progress to a rating of 4, Sistrunk says, is getting the department’s new station, Station No. 5, fully staffed.
“One of the things that will help us get from a 5 to a 4 is getting our new station open. The trade off with getting a 4 is that there are people whose insurance rates will improve and some (who will see no change),” she said. “It’s really going to come down to the insurance company and how they benefit from those codes. It would benefit some but not all.”
Getting Station No. 5 fully staffed requires the hiring of 12 full-time firemen — four of which have already been made — as well as administrative staff, a task Mann said will be arduous.
“It’s going to be difficult to undertake because you’re talking $150,000 for four firefighters added to the city budget, and that’s just four firefighters. We do an awful lot with the budget we have. The city does remarkably well to keep services going without being interrupted or going into the reduction of service or raising of taxes,” Mann said. “To make the world go around, you have to have money, but the board of aldermen is trying to make the wisest decisions it can as far as keeping departments operated without raising taxes. Aldermen have been very wise and frugal with their money, and they’ve directed department heads to do the same.”
Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman said the construction of Station No. 5 was necessary to meet the needs of a growing population, but making the transition to fully staff the station will take time.
“I know Chief Mann is studying all options available for staffing the fire station. It’s something that is important to him and the city as a whole. We were very fortunate to have Station No. 5 completely built with grant funds. That was an opportunity we did not want to miss because we knew in the next decade that we were going to need that station,” Wiseman said. “Now that we have it and the additional staff load it will ultimately require presents us with a challenge. We have made progress in hiring a shift for the station, and we will continue to make progress until it’s fully staffed.”
Sistrunk said one of those options — although it would likely not be popular — would be to consider using volunteer firemen at the station for a transitional period, a practice that has not been seen in the city since the 1980s. She referenced the Cleveland (Miss.) Fire Department, whose volunteers far outnumber their paid firefighters.
“The larger the city becomes, the more you go from being volunteer to paid ... but when you look at communities that are in the 25,000-50,000 population range, the ratio of volunteer firemen to paid firemen is 2-to-1,” she said. “The bulk of (Cleveland’s fire department) consists of volunteers. There’s a precedent for doing it; you have to be careful with how you manage that. You have to be careful with how you select your volunteers.”
Mann said the primary reason why the city went away from volunteers was how SFD’s insurance carrier would rate them differently than how they’re presently rated.
“When we get into volunteers, we get put into a combination class of department, and we get into other issues where our insurance carrier looks at us a little differently,” Mann said.
Along with staffing Station No. 5, Mann said the most pressing needs are currently the replacement of Ladder No. 2 and other firefighting vehicles.
“The issues we face are not unique to our department. Everybody is going through this funding battle with the economic conditions we’re in. We did extremely well with the funding we were able to secure,” he said. “Times are difficult, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t needs that continue to appear. I don’t think it can be underscored enough that the aldermen have done what they can do with the amount of funds they have, and that’s fully understandable from our side.”
Sistrunk said the board has taken steps this year to provide more funding for SFD, part of which was budgeted to purchase updated equipment. Because of Ladder No. 2’s size, she said, the cost to replace it will be an expensive investment.
“The estimates for the fire trucks in the data we were looking at when prioritizing the projects ranged from $600,000 to $1.3 million. Obviously, we would finance those so that we lower immediate costs,” she said. “We increased the SFD budget by approximately $300,000. Some of that was set aside to address items that have gone unfunded in years past — for instance, turnout gear and fire hoses. A lot of those had become marginally usable and may have posed safety concerns. We can give (SFD) the tools that can help them do it better, and that’s an issue the community has to (address).”
Wiseman said Mann and SFD deserve much credit for their efforts and service.
“Chief Mann and his staff do an incredible job managing an outstanding fire department and one of the best in Mississippi,” he said.