Crains Creek Department Acts to Address Problems
Despite the probationary status of the Crains Creek Fire Department, the residents of the district have fire protection.
Criticism of the department aired at a county commissioners' meeting generated cries of concern in the community, but both county officials and the Crains Creek fire chief say service is available when fire calls are received.
"I do everything from cleaning the toilet to saving lives," Crains Creek Fire Chief Kenneth Mackey said when asked about his duties as the department's only paid employee.
Moore County Fire Marshal Carlton Cole said the residents of Crains Creek are just as well protected now as they were before the department was placed on probation. His office is continuing to monitor the situation, and Cole said he hopes to iron out the problems there shortly.
Cole said Crains Creek is the only fire district in the county presently on probation, but that through the years several departments have been placed on probation for a variety of problems. In each case, the problems were worked out and probation was dropped.
Crains Creek Department's response time is well within acceptable time limits, and the district's fire insurance rating with the N.C. Department of Insurance is 6, which is better than the statewide average for rural departments.
"Six is the best rating you can get to benefit residential policy holders," Cole said.
Crains Creek was placed on probation largely because an insufficient number of firefighters responded to two fire calls during the previous year.
The other areas of noncompliance pertain to sluggish filing of reports and a rope inadequacy.
Mackey was asked to respond to a series of complaints voiced during the public-comment period at a November meeting of the Moore County Board of Commissioners.
Nancy Sidley, a former Crains Creek Fire District board member, called attention to the department's probationary status and complained that "the public's right to vote for the board of directors had been taken away from us." She said the present system works contrary to the intent of the fire district's founders and said it amounts to "taxation without representation."
Crains Creek is a rural community in the eastern part of the county in the Little River area. It has no large businesses or industrial plants. It has mostly farms, homes and churches.
The district spans 26 square miles and serves 2,500 residents, including some who live in Harnett County. It will soon be more populous because of growth expected from BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure program). Mackey knows of one new development with 247 houses.
Not Enough Firefighters
Cole said his office is working with the Crains Creek department to solve problems that led to the probation ruling.
The major problem is a lack of available firefighters to help when fire calls are received on week days during daytime hours. As chief, Mackey is always on duty, but the department's contract with the county requires that at least four qualified firefighters respond to each residential fire. In the previous year there were two home fires in which only two persons responded.
However, neither was a life-threatening situation, and Cole said that mutual aid is available from several area fire departments. In the case of Crains Creek, the Vass Fire Department is the major respondent for mutual aid.
At night and on weekends, the department has no problem finding plenty of firefighters ready to respond, but during the work week, most volunteers are on the job in other towns.
Mackey said it's hard to find volunteers who can leave their jobs and immediately drive to the scene of a fire. Most volunteers hold jobs in other communities, such as Southern Pines, Aberdeen or Carthage, and even if they could leave their jobs in the middle of the day, they would arrive too late to be of help.
"We're working with them to settle some of these issues," Cole said.
Cole said his office is helping Crains Creek personnel with record keeping and efforts to find additional firefighters. He added that he has also been working with Sidley in an effort to resolve some of their differences.
The department is not operated by the county. It is a separate entity but operates under contract with the county, which collects taxes on behalf of the department and sets the tax rate in each district.
The fire marshal's office also provides training, inspection and other services, but the only legal action available to the county would be to withdraw funding upon determining that the department has not complied with terms of the contract.
The county does not want to do that. If that becomes necessary, the county would have to contract with another department to provide fire protection services within the Crains Creek district.
Cole does not expect that to happen.
"Withdrawal of funds would be the worst case," he said.
Staffing Nationwide Problem
Cole said the existing personnel, although small in number, are all certified and have completed minimum training requirements.
Mackey is proud that most of his firefighters are also certified as emergency medical technicians who can assist the county EMS and rescue squads in medical emergencies. The department has 20 certified members, thus meeting the minimum state requirement.
"Staffing in rural departments is a nationwide problem," Cole said.
The economy and the social makeup of rural America has changed drastically in the past 20 years, and it is more difficult to find volunteers whose workplace is within the district and whose bosses are willing for them to leave work to fight fires. In addition, many industries in small communities have closed in recent years.
Cited as an example is West End, where Stanley Furniture Co. provided a number of volunteer firefighters for the department.
Stanley Furniture closed its doors several years ago, as did numerous other industrial plants in small communities. Men and women working in that industry have found jobs elsewhere or moved to other communities.
In her comments to the commissioners, Sidley complained that the chief's salary takes up 42 percent of the tax levy for the district and that members of the community have no authority to vote on how the district tax money is spent. She has also complained about being denied the right to attend board meetings.
Mackey, on the other hand, said meetings are open to the public because the department is subject to the state's Open Meetings Law, as are the county commissioners, municipalities and the school board. He said his board now holds public-comment periods at each meeting, also in compliance with state law.
Sidley said Cole advised Mackey that state law requires board meetings to be open to the public. However, she says that the public was denied admittance twice after Cole conferred with the department.
Mackey explained that the only times anyone has been denied entry to a meeting have been those times when the board went into closed session to discuss such subjects as personnel matters, an exception allowed in the Open Meetings Law.
Although the department is a private nonprofit corporation, it is subject to state law because of its acceptance of tax monies through contract with the county.
Property owners in the Crains Creek Fire District pay a tax rate of 11.5 cents per $100 property valuation. The district has a tax base of $86.4 million and a budget of $97,466. The budget covers expenses for operation of the fire station and all equipment, maintenance, utilities, gasoline, and the chief's salary of $34,000 a year plus benefits.
Only Full-Time Employee
The district is also supported by Harnett County, which has its own contract with the department.
Sidley told the commissioners that Mackey's salary represents a higher percentage of the district budget than is the case in other districts.
Under the department's bylaws, Mackey said anyone residing in the Crains Creek District is eligible to be elected to the board, but only board members are allowed to vote. The board follows a process in which a nominating committee is appointed to recommend new officers, but Mackey said the board must open the floor for further nominations. He said one does not have to be a firefighter or a board member to be considered for board membership, but voting is restricted to board members.
In addition to the minimum staffing at the scene requirement, the only other area in which the department was not in compliance with its contract was in the area of reporting in accordance with the National Fire Incident Reporting System.
In the evaluation dated June 19, the county says that the department had not filed a monthly report since December 2007. The reports are due in the fire marshal's office by the fifth of each month.
The local evaluation showed that the department's response time and dispatch protocols were in compliance, as were its training requirements.
As for the review of minimum state requirements, the department was in compliance with everything except possession of 100 feet of rope at minimum half-inch.
Responding to complaints that he is not always at the station, Mackey said that as the only full-time employee, he cannot stay in the station all the time and do his work. His duties include buying supplies, making bank deposits and collecting and sending mail at the post office.
The department owns two pumpers, one tanker, one service truck, two brush trucks, a pickup truck and a Suburban. Mackey said some of the equipment was donated by Harnett County, and the pickup and the Suburban were also donated.
A former deputy sheriff, Mackey served as volunteer chief of the department for six years and has been the full-time paid chief for the past five years.
Small Tax Base
Moore County has 17 special fire service districts. When the department has headquarters in a town, the district usually encompasses the area surrounding the municipality, and in most cases those districts have higher tax bases than the strictly rural departments.
Crains Creek has one of the smaller tax bases. While property valuations increased across the county when the new property values went into effect this year, Crains Creek actually experienced a drop in its tax base.
Response time varies according to geography and demographics. For example, Cole says that in rural areas sometimes it takes much longer for a fire to be detected and the call made to 911. However, this delay is not included in the fire department's response time.
Contact Florence Gilkeson at 947-4962 or by e-mail at florence @thepilot.com.
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