Bainbridge, Decatur County review study for combining fire departments

Published 8:25 pm Friday, June 16, 2017

The City of Bainbridge and Decatur County are researching the feasibility of combining both governments’ fire departments for a county-wide service.

The purpose of the study, conducted by the UGA Carl Vincent Institute of Government, was to see if a merger would improve service quality of firefighting, increase area-specific training and reduce the turnover rate at Bainbridge Public Safety, among other areas.

An additional step of such a merger would be for Bainbridge Public Safety to deconsolidate its police and fire services, which it currently provides.

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The study found that the net fiscal impact on the City of Bainbridge would rise to an annual cost of $113,000 to $126,000 over the next several years. The leap in cost comes from adding four new full-time fire employees and major renovations to the East Shotwell Street fire station.

Currently, Bainbridge employs six personnel solely dedicated to fire: the fire chief and five fire engineers. Under consolidation, the six positions would be eliminated, but the county would have to hire 10 full-time firefighters to staff two stations within Bainbridge 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

According to Bainbridge City Manager Chris Hobby, the cost of deconsolidating BPS to merge with Decatur County wouldn’t be ideal.

“If you look at the whole study, it almost comes across as an endorsement of the public safety concept,” Hobby said. “It saves money, the ISO is probably better than post-consolidation, our crime rate is on the low end in region, the officer pay is second highest in region. All of those kind of leads back to public safety is a pretty good method of service delivery.”

The consolidation would also aim to reduce turnover rate and accelerate recruitment for BPS. However, the study found the turnover rate for Bainbridge’s officers is roughly the same as similar police departments in South Georgia. It also points out that officer retention in the U.S. is a common challenge.

The study did report that increased area-specific training would almost be assured under consolidation. Decatur County’s firefighters working in Bainbridge would have more time to train on fire-related challenges than the city’s public safety officers, who are currently wearing both police and firefighter hats. By not training for fire, BPS officers could have more time to train in law enforcement as well.

The study states that Bainbridge and Decatur County officials must decide if the estimate additional financial costs support the anticipated, but not guaranteed, benefits of countywide service.

Hobby pointed out that a full-time, county-wide fire department would see too much downtime between calls. Currently, fire-related incidents make up 1.71 percent of BPS’s workload, the study found.

“This data we have gotten is extremely valuable,” Hobby said. “It does begin to paint a picture for us, and we can use this as we make other decisions. We are going to continue to explore areas where we can cooperate and work together. But there is really not any big benefit to doing an operational consolidation for the city.”

Bainbridge has consolidated services with Decatur County at the West Bainbridge fire station.