CORNELIUS – The town’s budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 likely won’t include funding to meet Fire Chief Neal Smith’s goal of adding full-time firefighters.
Cornelius-Lemley Fire Rescue, which contracts with the town, is made up of part-time employees and volunteers. Smith has asked in the past for the agency to become an official town department so it could offer full-time positions with salaries and benefits. He made his case again during the commissioners’ recent budget retreat in Winston-Salem.
“The problem that continually plagues me is the coverage,” Smith said. “I’m asking for $390,000 for six full-time firemen.”
Most of the 75 Cornelius firefighters who are able to respond to calls work on their days off from their regular full-time emergency-services jobs, which commonly average 56 hours a week, to fill the around-the-clock shifts. But lately they have worked fewer hours for the Cornelius department despite its increased coverage areas and call volume.
“We’ve talked about this magic part-time paid philosophy, but it’s starting to fail,” Smith said. “Eventually it’s not going to be sustainable. It might continue two to three years, but I don’t know how long it’s going to last.”
In 2017, Smith said, 94 percent of shifts were covered and there were vacancies on 144 days. In 2018, 91 percent of the shifts were covered and there were 189 days with vacancies. The shortages commonly occurred on weekends.
Smith said there were days when he had to close the second station, and he wound up implementing overtime in May to be able to entice people to work.
Smith, whose position will be up for renewal in June, said if commissioners agree to start the transition to a full-time department he could provide a five-year plan.
A regional department?
Town Manager Andrew Grant said he didn’t include funding for full-time firefighters in his draft budget because he’s planning a study of the department soon. And there are talks of neighboring towns also participating.
The town has contracted an independent consulting firm that has worked with public safety entities nationwide to do a comprehensive study of fire service in Cornelius.
“They’ll analyze call data to determine the nature of the calls, including types of calls, response times, location and time of day, etc., to determine if we are responding adequately and, if not, what could be done to address the response needed,” Grant wrote in an email after the retreat. “A component of the study is to review the resources currently available, including facilities, equipment, apparatus and personnel structure.”
Another aspect is analyzing the feasibility and possible effectiveness of consolidating with Davidson and Huntersville departments.
“Consolidation can be a merging of departments or a functional consolidation, whereby some functions are shared that benefit the departments individually, such as procuring jointly,” Grant wrote. “Huntersville has indicated that they will participate in the consolidation study. Davidson is considering it, and will likely make a decision within the next two weeks.”
While Smith would like to get more employees sooner, he welcomes the study.
“I encourage it,” Smith said. “I’m absolutely all on board. … What I’m going to say when I hand them this data is, ‘We’re behind.’”
Fire boat needs rescuing
Smith has also requested funding to repair the department’s 10-year-old fire boat.
“I’m worried it’s going to fail,” he said. “Last year it started to give us issues.”
The boat’s manufacturer estimated the needed work would approach $100,000.
When the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department handled lake patrol, it also provided emergency medical service.Now that the Cornelius Police Department handles lake patrol, EMS duty is handled by the fire department.
“That puts a lot of wear and tear on the boat,” Smith said, adding that the boat has taken a beating sitting in the sun in the Peninsula.
The repairs were listed in the draft budget recommendations, but some commissioners asked staff to see if they were necessary and to look at other options.