Fire study: Cornelius needs more paid volunteers
by Staff Writer
by Frank DeLoache
CORNELIUS – The town is getting a “very good” value for the money it spends on its volunteer fire department, but commissioners need to spend more to make sure each truck has the minimum of four firefighters when responding to any call, a group of citizens who audited the department has concluded.
The second “performance audit” of a town department concluded that Cornelius-Lemley Fire Rescue usually meets the four-firefighter standard set by the National Fire Protection Association. But officials fear those service standards can dip after 6 p.m. and on weekends as the department still depends on a volunteer responding to pager alert as the fourth person on the crew, Rob Cannon, a full-time Charlotte firefighter, told commissioners.
A Cornelius native, Cannon helped conduct the non-paid, citizen audit of the department with fellow residents Jill McDowell, an attorney, and Dave Peterson, a financial expert with Bank of America. In general, Cannon said the town has a “top notch” department.
On weekdays during the day, the department pays four volunteers, many of them career firefighters from nearby departments, to staff the station, but at night and on weekends, the town pays for only three volunteers and depends on other volunteers to respond from their homes or work. Although a number of volunteers will eventually arrive to assist, the critical moments occur in the minutes after the department’s truck arrives at a fire or accident scene, Cannon said.
The town would have to provide the department another $134,000 – representing an 11 percent increase in the department’s operating budget – to add a fourth paid volunteer at night and on weekends.
McDowell said commissioners should meet the national standard to better assure the safety of firefighters and citizens they are trying to help and to avoid legal liability in case of large loss of property or if someone is injured or killed.
With only three people arriving on a truck at a house fire, Cannon explained, regulations say the firefighters should not attempt to enter a structure to fight a fire. But if firefighters believe “there’s a life or death situation,” most crews are going to try to save the person in danger, he said.
But to put their staffing in perspective, Cannon and Cornelius-Lemley Fire Chief Jim Barbee said no other volunteer fire departments in the area currently meet the national standard either. Only full-time, paid departments such as Charlotte meet the standard, Cannon said.
The citizen auditors reached a number of other conclusions, including:
• The department has 65 volunteers, more than to Huntersville or Davidson and many more than 13 other departments of similar size throughout North Carolina. Cornelius-Lemley continues to get a “steady stream of requests from potential new volunteers,” Cannon said.
• The firefighters are well trained. Forty-nine of 65 members are certified as emergency medical technicians. The citizen group recommended the town consider building a training facility – possibly in cooperation with other Lake Norman-area towns – in the future. The town also pays for a doctor to give physicals to all firefighters once a year, which puts “Cornelius at the top of this area” among fire departments.
• Financially the department “is sound, well run (and) maintains ample liquidity but will need funding for future capital programs and additional personnel.” The department operates on $1.2 million – less than 12 of 13 other “like-size” departments and substantially less than most. The audit committee could not get budget numbers for New Bern, the 13th city. All the other 13 departments, including New Bern, have full-time firefighters. For instance, Mooresville, while not quite double in geographic size than Cornelius, spends almost five times – or $6.8 million – on its fire department.
The audit group felt the Cornelius department could better promote itself and raise support from the community. The report noted the much more successful fundraising effort by the Cornelius Animal Shelter Alliance, which enabled the town to build its new shelter. In recently years, the fire department’s special fundraising events have raised nearly $50,000 annually.
• Cornelius-Lemley has the best state rating for insurance purposes of the three north Mecklenburg towns, saving homeowners and businesses money. The rating given each town by the state’s Insurance Services Office – the lower the better – helps determine rates insurance companies charge. Cornelius has a Class 4 rating, compared to a Class 5 rating for Huntersville and Davidson.
The study found Huntersville compared well in other categories. The Huntersville department covers more than double Cornelius’ territory – 28 square miles compared to 15 – and answered double the number of calls in 2010 – 4,506 compare to Cornelius’ 2,288 – but its 2010 budget is $1.9 million, just $700,000 more than Cornelius.
According to the committee, Davidson covers also the same territory as Cornelius – 14 square miles – and spent half (2009 budget figures), at $600,000. But the Davidson department also responded to fewer – 1,000 – calls in 2010.