Fire Chief Ed Hancock confirmed that the budget boost from a levy issue approved in 2016 has positioned the department to better meet current needs and future growth.

A four-year plan to stabilize the budget and increase staffing appear to be on track for the Gravois Fire Protection District.

Fire Chief Ed Hancock confirmed that the budget boost from a levy issue approved in 2016 has positioned the department to better meet current needs and future growth.

The 30-cent increase in its operations levy began being collected for the district’s 2017 budget, raising the budget from $908,645 in 2016 to $1,637,244 in 2017. The board of directors has subsequently been able to fund specific identified line budgets for staffing, equipment replacement, maintenance and emergency reserve.

“With ever increasing responses annually we have to be able to monitor progress, review responses, staffing and equipment to make the district as effective as possible and allow us to continue to provide quality service to the citizens we serve and the plans put in effect after the levy increase makes this possible,” Hancock said.

The district is still under the 1,000 mark for annual call volume, but continues to get nearer each year.

Recruitment and retention of firefighters was high on the list of goals for the additional funds.

Firefighters received a 25 percent raise at the beginning of 2017. Even with that boost, GFPD wages are below other area districts but do help make the department more competitive in that area, according to Hancock.

The GFPD has also started doing exit interviews with firefighters leaving the district’s employment and are considering some future changes outside of wages to make the department more attractive to recruits and help with retention of current firefighters. Removal of an in-district residency requirement is one topic up for debate right now, said Hancock. In addition to a lack of affordable housing, it can be difficult for spouses to find jobs in the area, making a full move to the district challenging for firefighters and their families.

New firefighter positions have also been created. Currently there are three “floater” positions, firefighters who fill in on whatever shift as needed to cover absences. When the department doesn’t have someone gone, this means four firefighters on duty rather than three.

The district has also applied for a grant to fund volunteer internships, similar to a program in place at Mid County Fire Protection District based in Camdenton. The two-year contract would have interns work shift like a career firefighter, and be quartered at the fire house, in return for experience in the field and getting the classes needed to be certified to enter the workforce at small departments. It could provide additional manpower for the department as well as help develop a hiring list for potential recruits.

With Mid County already participating in the program, the question is how many such programs the area can support, Hancock said.

Before starting the program though, the GFPD is looking to hire a training officer for regular full-time staff, but also to better handle the internship program.

The position has been open for hire but currently remains unfilled as the department looks for someone who will be the right fit for the size of the department and other considerations. That funding is currently helping fund the floater positions. It should also be noted that the floater positions have not been filled all the time either, and the third floater position was only approved in September 2018.

Through this strategy, the district is also training potential regular full-time firefighters for its long term plan to open Station 2 in Gravois Mills with a full-time duty crew of paid firefighters, according to Hancock. He estimated they would be able to open this station full-time with a two-person shift — using six firefighters overall — by the end of 2019.

Station 2 serves the department’s second busiest area, but it is also a strategic location for the 150-square-mile district. The location on Highway 5 in Gravois Mills offers a central launching point on the main thoroughfare for the northern half of the district, just as the already-staffed headquarters in Laurie does for the southern portion, Hancock explained.

In addition to improving service, more boots on the ground with the opening of Station 2 opens the potential for lowering the district Insurance Service Organization rating. Some, though not all, insurance companies use this rating system as one factor in home insurance rates.

The GFPD is currently at a 7, with 10 being the worst rating. The goal is to get down to a 5, said Hancock. While a 4 or 3 would be nice, he added, the lack of comprehensive fire hydrant systems for reliable water flow is a major part of ISO scoring. The district lacks anything like that and is unlikely to see anything along those lines in the foreseeable future.

Instead, the department utilizes pumps for lake water where an option and tanker apparatus to haul in water, but limited points are given for this strategy as it is not optimal for the fastest water-to-fire service.

A clerk has also been added with the levy increase, putting civilian staff at two. There is currently an administrative assistant. One position helps more with financial paperwork while the other more with answering phones and maintaining response records, said Hancock.

Equipment and apparatus

The board has been able to set back $9,000 each year for certain equipment replacement and $65,000 annually for larger capital items like large apparatus. The district is planning and saving money for future purchase of items as large as self-contained breathing apparatus (which have a mandated 15-year replacement cycle) and bunker gear (which has a 12-year service life) to as small as radios and rescue tools. 

Two complete sets of obsolete rescue tools have already been replaced as well as two new thermal imaging cameras and two 4-gas detectors purchased.

Tires have been onto a seven-year cycle, as recommended by the department of transportation, rather than five as recommended by insurance.