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  • Charlene Sims, Journal staff

Commissioner suggests hiring full-time firefighters, combining city and county crews

Updated: May 24, 2022

MOUND CITY – On Monday, May 2, Commissioner Rick James suggested that the county hire one full-time firefighter each for the county-owned Mound City, Pleasanton, and La Cygne fire departments. He also suggested combining the city fire departments at La Cygne and Pleasanton with the county department.

James said that many of the volunteers worked during that time and were not available to answer fire calls. He also was concerned about ISO ratings, and duplication of services in Pleasanton and La Cygne costing the taxpayers extra money.

During Linn County Fire Chief Doug Barlet’s report, James asked Barlet about the number of firefighters at specific locations and their availability during the weekday hours.

James asked Barlet about the number of firefighters at La Cygne and Pleasanton. Barlet said that while the county had approved 22 for each location, La Cygne only had 10 to 12 firefighters and Pleasanton had 14 to 15 for the county department.

James asked if the department had sustained those numbers over the years or have they stayed about the same. Barlet answered they will go up in one area and down in another. The smaller stations like Centerville and Prescott really struggle to get anyone.

The county has four firefighters at Prescott and that is what it has had for probably the last 10 years or so, replied Barlet. We might get up to five or six but a lot of the folks that join last six months and leave or stop showing up.

A lot of people don’t understand how hard firefighting is, how much work it is, and when they realize how difficult it is and how much demand there is, not everybody wants to get up at 2 a.m. in the morning and go fight a fire all night when it is 3 degrees, he said.

James asked Barlet if most the firefighters worked jobs during the day away from the area. Barlet said that was true for the county but he could not say for the cities.

James asked Barlet if the city of La Cygne’s fire department housed any of its equipment in the county fire barn in La Cygne.

Barlet said they did have two apparatus currently there, an engine and tender. He said that the city has a written contract with the county to pay all the utilities for the station.

County Counselor Gary Thompson asked if the city keeps equipment elsewhere as well? Barlet said La Cygne also had another fire station on the west side where they keep some equipment that they have. They actually have it in two locations at La Cygne.

ISO ratings are a factor

James asked Barlet to give him criteria for Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating.

Barlet said some criteria that was used are:

  • Sheriff’s dispatchers, whether there was one or more.

  • Training, how many hours of training a month for the volunteer fire service. Barlet that It is virtually impossible to get a lot of points in training because he thinks it takes ten to twenty hours per week to get enough for points and Linn County works to get two to three hours per month to get volunteers to come for that.

  • Ability to haul water, Barlet said this is where the county gets the most points. We have seven tinders at each station that can haul 2,000 gallons of water. Also, when Public Wholesale Water District #13, started up they allowed the county to set up each one of their accessible clean outs to be used for getting water.

  • Equipment, what kind of equipment, what condition it is in.

Barlet said the ISO put all of these things into a formula that develops the rating. The rating is also determined by test cases they pick randomly in the county to see if there is enough water available.

Barlet said that the county’s rating was a 5, and many people are amazed that with the county’s almost 600-square-mile coverage area that the county could get a score that high. A rating of 1 is the top rating, with 10 being the worst. Property insurance rates are usually tied to ISO ratings.

James asked if cities have ISO ratings. Barlet said they did if they had their own fire district.

James went on to explain that the county had taken over the Mound City fire department because there were not enough people to cover their department and their rating was a 10. James explained that for individuals and companies that caused a drastic increase in their insurance costs.

James said that he was asking these questions because he had just seen that the city of La Cygne was planning on building a fire barn for $775,000. The county currently has about 10 firefighters there and some of those volunteers work for both fire departments.

“The way Mound City is working, it works good,” said James. “We have a county barn here (Mound City), we have a county barn in Pleasanton, and we have a county barn in La Cygne,” said James.

James said it seemed like the county and cities were facing the same battle. He said he would personally not care if the county fire truck showed up at his house in La Cygne or if the city truck showed up. He said he would just want the damn fire out.

James said that he sort of understood why the Firefighters Retirement Fund was an issue. But he thought that the Fire Board and the city officials in La Cygne and Pleasanton should get together and talk.

“We could probably work out something really good,” said James.

James asked why the cities of Pleasanton and La Cygne wouldn’t want to turn that over to the county.

The county could take the tax money and hire a full-time firefighter for each, La Cygne, Mound City and Pleasanton and work together to put together a great plan, said James.

“I know their first worry is we will just do it for a while and quit and we’ll get mad at you or they will get mad at us and we’ll quit,” said James.

James said the county could do a resolution or a plan to keep that going so the county could not just back out of it. They can back out but we can’t back out.

Questioning plans for new La Cygne fire station

James said that $775,000 in La Cygne could be used on a lot of things.

He said he owns a house in La Cygne for his mother but it just seems like money could be spent better somewhere else.

James said he hated to see $700,000 in the city to just spend it on a barn when the city already has a company that does that, which is the county.

Commissioner Danny McCullough said he had always wondered why there were two fire departments in Pleasanton, adding that he had been told it was about the retirement fund.

Barlet said that the organization was the Firefighters Relief Association where a little bit of the money from everyone’s insurance premium goes into the fund and comes back through a state firefighters relief act. This pays a disability or life insurance benefit for the firefighters. Firefighters who work for both the city and county can double dip this insurance.

James did not think the firefighters fund was as big an issue as the county taking over the fire departments.

In a email to the Journal by Jake Mattingley, a Pleasanton city councilman who had been a firefighter with both county and city departments, he said much of the information and assumptions James presented were wrong. The most important reason for the city department was to have coverage in the city when the rural department was out on a fire call.

“As a matter of fact, (Pleasanton city fire) Chief Rob Dent purposely limits the number of firefighters that are both on the county and city departments for this exact reason,” he said.

Mattingley said that, as a member of the city's firefighting crew, he had to wait to be accepted as a county firefighter until one of the limited number of slots for firefighters that could be on both crews became open. During the more than a decade he was on both departments, there were multiple times that either he or Dent stayed behind in the city because the county had enough firefighters and most of the city’s crew was at work or out of town.

He said he has told Commissioner Danny McCullough more than once that the decision to have firefighters on both crews had nothing to do with the retirement funds.

In a separate interview, Pleasanton City Administrator Teresa Whitaker said the ISO rating for the city was a 5, and that it improved since the city’s water project in 2015. She worried that abandoning the city’s fire department would leave the city more vulnerable.

She also pointed out that the city fire crew takes on maintenance tasks that are not part of the county station’s duties such as flushing hydrants around the city.

“If they feel like we are a burden to them, come talk to us,” Whitaker said.

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