Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
May 6, 2015 8:04 p.m.
Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) regular attendee Lynn Williams would seem to have a new cause, if you listened to his remarks during Public Comment at the May 5, 2015 FBCC meeting. He related his experience in visiting family on Long Beach Island, NJ recently, during which he discovered that the community was served by a 5-station, volunteer fire department. Williams drew comparisons in size and population with Amelia Island. He said that their insurance rates are the equivalent of Fernandina Beach. Upon further investigation, he learned that 71 percent of the firefighters in the United States are volunteers.
He said when he thought about Fernandina Beach firefighters, he found that they are all “fairly well paid” with starting salaries around $32,000 and senior firefighters earning sometimes over $80,000. After 33 years they can retire on full salary, Williams said. The current Fire Department budget is $4M, of which $3.1M goes toward salaries. He said that he was not suggesting that the city should have a volunteer fire department. But, he suggested, that if city firefighters are troubled by poor morale, “There are other alternatives that should be a consideration at some point.”
Mayor Ed Boner later recognized Chett Lyncker, who spoke as a private citizen with local firefighting experience. Lyncker has served as a city firefighter and president of the local firefighters union. As Lyncker approached the podium, Boner said, “I’ve got a question. How many people does it take to staff a fire truck? Can it be done with one person?” Lyncker said that National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) recommends a minimum of three personnel on a truck, but some larger jurisdictions run four or five. Lyncker went on to explain how important it is for the personnel who work and train together to arrive together to be able to render immediate assistance. He said that if one person arrived in a truck and had to await the separate arrival of volunteers, lives in a burning structure could be placed in even more danger.
Lyncker said that volunteer programs are very good in rural areas and that he respects their operations. As a community grows, volunteers have jobs that take them away from the area so they may not be as readily available to respond to calls. He added that the average layperson doesn’t understand the process and time constraints. He said that with increased reliance on technology, it takes 3-4 highly trained personnel to respond to cardiac emergencies.
Mayor Boner asked about the importance of paid firefighters in relation to homeowner insurance rates. Lyncker said that the ISO rating, of which the city is very proud, is determined by a variety of measures including personnel, training and water supply, but medical calls are completely different from the ISO ratings.
“It’s a novel idea—services for free would be great. But Fernandina Beach has highly motivated, college-educated firefighters that work together as a team in so many different areas from vehicle accidents to industrial accidents to fires to medical calls. I know I’m proud to pay the extra taxes to have a dedicated service available 24-7.”
It is interesting to note that Nassau County, which has heavily depended on volunteer firefighters, appears to be moving toward full time, salaried firefighters.
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.