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|Study proposes improvements at parish fire department|
A recently completed study of the Ouachita Parish Fire Department suggests the department can obtain a class 4 fire rating with some changes.
The University of Louisiana-Monroe's Social Science Research laboratory was hired in March 2008 to conduct the study.
The parish fire department currently has a class 5 rating.
The department's class rating determines how much money parish property owners pay for homeowner's insurance. The highest rating, or best rating, is a class 1. The Property Insurance Association of Louisiana determines the rating for each fire department in the state.
ULM political science professors Dr. John Sutherlin and Dr. Kevin Unter discussed the results of the study Monday with the Ouachita Parish Police Jury. The professors presented their findings at the police jury's regular meeting.
"A class 4 rating is obtainable within the current budget parameters," Sutherlin said. "I think the chief would like to have a class 4 rating because it says to the citizens: We are doing everything we can to save money."
Sutherlin said the biggest issue facing the department in terms of improving its fire rating is water accessibility. To remedy the problem, the parish would need to install 142 new fire hydrants within the service area, Sutherlin said.
"The idea is to store water at different locations to bump up the rating," Sutherlin said. "In terms of fire service, we are not sure if adding water would improve service because the service is already pretty sound."
Sutherlin said improving the fire rating may provide some small savings per household, but parish-wide, the savings would be substantial.
"The savings for businesses and churches would be tremendous," Sutherlin explained. "There are a significant number of churches in the unincorporated areas. When the insurance rating fell, those places experienced significant jumps in their insurance."
Besides improving the department's fire rating, the ULM Social Science Research laboratory also was asked to assist in securing grants for the parish fire department and conduct a comparative salary analysis to determine if fire department employees are being paid adequately.
The police jury paid the ULM laboratory $17,500 to conduct the study.
Sutherlin said the study has already benefited the parish because it helped the department secure a $239,000 federal grant last month. That grant money will be used to purchase additional equipment and provide more training for firefighters.
Sutherlin said ULM will continue to assist the parish in obtaining grants for the fire department. He said U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander's office is currently helping them identify grants to pursue.
"We think there will be additional opportunities for more grants in the future," Sutherlin said.
The ULM professors said they spent time in every fire department substation interviewing employees and evaluating the department's equipment.
Sutherlin told the police jury the department's employees believe Chief Pat Hemphill is doing a good job managing the department's budget. The firefighters also believe they have good equipment, Sutherlin said.
Several firefighters suggested that the addition of GPS equipment would help provide better service to parish residents.
"This fire department has some unique characteristics in the sense that it is a large area, and many parts of the parish are underdeveloped in terms of having signs, and sometimes it is just difficult to locate stuff," Sutherlin said. "Including a GPS monitor would be a quick way to track down individual fires out in the parish. We kept hearing that time and time again … it would be a fairly inexpensive way to improve public safety."
Regarding compensation for firefighters, Unter said parish firefighters, on average, are paid the same as other nearby fire departments.
"The conclusion is: They are not paid as much as they would like; they are not paid as much as you (police jury) would like to pay them; and they are not paid as much as the citizens would like to pay them, Unter said. "But, comparatively to other areas, they are paid approximately the same."
Other recommendations made by the Social Science Research laboratory included creating a non-profit foundation to help assist the fire department as well as dividing the fire district into sub-districts.
Regarding the non-profit foundation, Sutherlin said it would be 100 percent external of the police jury and fire department's control. It would be supported by business and private donations. He said a similar foundation was established in New Orleans for its police department.
"It assists the police officers in their tasks by being able to provide things like equipment and some consulting services, or additional one-time funding," Unter said.
For example, the New Orleans Police Department recently needed more bullet-proof vests. The foundation conducted some fundraisers, secured money and bought the vests, Unter said.
"They didn't have to go through the city-wide budgeting process or the city-wide bid process," Unter said.
Sutherlin said people sometimes would like to donate items such as exercise equipment to police departments or fire departments. This could easily be done by having the foundation accept the equipment on the department's behalf.
"That would be a fairly tricky thing to do in terms to donating that to a parish government," Sutherlin said. "They (foundation) also could go after grants that are only available for non-profits."
The creation of sub-districts within the parish fire district also could be a way to improve the fire rating, Sutherlin said.
Unter said the creation of sub-districts would not negatively impact the service to residents in any way.
The police jury took no action following the presentation by the ULM professors.