Possible future fire department change leads to lengthy discussion


ROBERTSDALE, Alabama — The possible future transitioning from a volunteer to combination fire department led to a lengthy discussion at the Robertsdale City Council meeting Monday, Jan. 4.

Robertsdale’s newest council member Russell Johnson said he would like to see the city transition from an all-volunteer fire department to having some paid firefighters at some point in the future.

“I love our fire department and I think they do a fantastic job,” Johnson said, “but our city is growing rapidly and I think we need to at least start the discussion of how we are going to transition to having some paid firefighters.”

Council member Sue Cooper said the transition needs to start with the hiring of a fire chief.

“If we do anything it needs to start with a chief,” Cooper said, “then we can go from there.”

Mayor Charles Murphy said there have been several discussions on transitioning from an all-volunteer fire department to hiring some paid fire employees.

“If we do that it needs to be with the understanding that those positions would be decided on by the city and not by the fire department,” he said.

Murphy said they have discussed hiring a fire chief as a level 9.5 position, which would be equal to a police lieutenants position with a base salary of $82,000. Additional firefighters could be hired as level 8 positions with a base salary of $67,000.

Johnson said there are grants available which could provide at least a portion of the salary costs over a three-year period. After that it would be the city’s responsibility to pay the salaries.

“I really think we should be thinking about what the long-term costs are to the city,” said Council member Paul Hollingsworth. “My opinion is that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ but the bottom line is we need more information and more input from the citizens and from the firefighters themselves.”

Fire Chief Macks Hastings, along with several members of the Robertsdale Fire Department were present at the meeting. During the city’s work session, Hastings gave an annual report, which listed a total of 581 runs made by the department in 2020. Hastings said the total number of calls in 2019 was closer to 500.

While none of the firefighters present came out against the measure, some did express concerns over hiring paid fire personnel.

“I think it could be great if you hired good people and it could be disastrous if you didn’t hire good people,” one firefighter said. “I don’t have a problem with hiring firefighters, but can we do something about the lights in our parking lot. We have no lights in our parking lot.”

Another firefighter said he had come from a department that had paid firefighters.

“There was a lot of tension between the paid firefighters and the volunteer firefighters,” he said, adding that since the paid firefighters were in command positions, they had a tendency to assign “grunt” work to the volunteers and left the “fun stuff” for themselves.

Firefighter Nicholas Moore, who had previously served the department as chief, suggested talking to the Spanish Fort Fire Chief. Spanish Fort recently transitioned from an all-volunteer department to a 24-hour department with paid firefighters on each shift, Moore said.

“This is not something that’s going to happen overnight,” Moore said. “It took 10 years for the Spanish Fort Fire Department to get to that point.”

Moore said right now Spanish Fort spends about $1 million per year to staff the city’s fire department. Murphy said the total cost for a level 9.5 employee in the police department, which includes the cost of uniforms, equipment, insurance and other expenses, is about $125,000 per year.

“We just need to go back and look at the numbers to see how much this is going to cost and how it’s going to be done,” he said. “I think everyone here has brought up valid points of discussion and we need to have more discussion leading up to any kind of decision.”

Recent mayoral candidate Roger Booth said he would like to see the fire department transition away from being supervised by the city’s police chief.

“Not that I think it’s going on here, but anytime you have a fire chief being supervised by a police chief, it’s bound to cause clashes, which is why I am not currently a part of the fire department like I have been in the past,” he said. “Fire chiefs and police chiefs are bound to disagree on things because the two departments have very different needs.”

In other business Jan. 4, the council discussed plans for the city’s Centennial Celebration in 2021.

Plans were to have several events spread out through the year, said Council member Ruthie Campbell, who has been heading up the project, but with concerns growing over COVID-19, some planned events such as performances by the Baldwin Pops and the Robertsdale High School Alumni Association Tea, which had planned its theme around the Centennial, have already been canceled.

“I think the best thing right now is to have several events at one time,” Murphy said, “but with the uncertainty over the virus right now, it’s just not clear when that is going to be.”

Some items discussed were the planting of a Centennial Tree which would be located on railroad right-of-way property which the city has permission to use as park space located behind Lee Drug Store; the placement of a plaque with a possible location on the north end of the city’s walking trail off of U.S. 90, along with an area dedicated to veterans.

There was also discussion of printing the city’s history and advertising on local television and radio stations. Plans were also discussed for a Centennial Festival.

Murphy said any kind of festival will have to be coordinated with the Central Baldwin Education Foundation’s annual Honeybee Festival, which was postponed from last October after the park was damaged during Hurricane Sally. Plans were tentatively set to have the festival in the spring, but Murphy said it is unclear at this point when the festival would be held.

Murphy invited council members to suggest names for a six-member committee to decide on Centennial events, which would include Campbell, Cooper and Johnson. Hopes are to have the committee set up by the council’s next work session in February.

The only item voted on at the Jan. 4 meeting was to change the meeting date of the Jan. 18 meeting to Jan. 19 because city offices would be closed in honor of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service.