When Parish President V.J. St. Pierre first took office in 2008, he requested that the parish’s nine volunteer fire departments study the potential of transitioning from volunteer firefighters to a paid department.
Paradis Volunteer Fire Department (PVFD) Chief Oliver Dufrene, who has been in charge of the fire department for over 30 years, said the results were sobering.
“The cost to employ a full-time paid firefighter staff, including salaries benefits and everything else, was in the millions,” he said.
While Dufrene and Deputy Chief Jarad Charpentier said they are not opposed to having paid fire fighters on staff, they said the volunteer fire departments do not have the budget to pay for them right now.
“It would end up in a situation where you have one paid firefighter per truck where it takes multiple firefighters to properly staff one truck,” Dufrene said.
Right now, the PVFD answers between 200 and 250 responses per year to not only fires, but also car accidents and industrial incidents. At any time, they can call on 34 unpaid firefighters. They said there are only a few associated costs for their service related to personnel, including health and life insurance for those who are injured or killed while responding to an emergency situation, and costs for continuing education.
The fire station has paid for volunteers to receive their firefighter certification. They also pay for first responder courses and emergency medical technician training.
“A lot of guys come here and get their training and then are able to take that and put it towards their profession somewhere else,” Charpentier said.
In addition, Charpentier said a volunteer staff allows for a variety of people from the community that have different backgrounds to bring their skills to the station.
“If you look at my case, I have been a computer technician for 10 years, so I take care of all of the computers in the office. Now if we had a paid force we might either have to contract that out or pay someone to do it,” he said.
Charpentier said the best solution may be a fire department that includes a combination of paid and volunteer firefighters.
The budget for the nine fire departments comes from a 1/8 cent sales tax measure that was passed in 1981 and is renewed every 10 years. In addition, a portion of the parish’s property taxes are dedicated to funding the fire departments.
Much of that budget goes toward equipment for firefighters, vehicles and the fire stations themselves.
With the budget being split amongst nine parish fire departments, some think that money could be spent more wisely by consolidating services.
Wilton Ledet has held numerous appointments at the East St. Charles Volunteer Fire Department during his three decades as a volunteer firefighter.
Ledet said he believes there is an unnecessary duplication of equipment and services and he is ready to see changes in the way fire departments are handled in the parish.
“They still have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers to spend their money wisely and I think the money is there for a paid department if we consolidated the departments and maybe were more frugal with the way we spend money,” he said. “I don’t think they’d have to raise taxes to have a paid department.”
In addition, he said full-time employees could be used during the daytime hours when many of the volunteers are unavailable due to work.
“A lot of guys work outside the parish and outside their districts, and it’s good to have that, but I think they need to go parishwide and maybe have a crew on the East Bank and a crew on the West Bank during the day hours when things are slow,” he said.
Charpentier said he can agree with the assertion that sometimes there are not enough volunteers available.
“I’ve always said we are equipment rich and manpower poor at times,” he said.
However, he said the number of stations and number of trucks are necessary to retain crucial fire ratings that are reflected in property insurance.
Councilman Larry Cochran was formerly the chief of the St. Rose Volunteer Fire Department (SRVFD).
He agrees with Ledet that daytime response time would be better with a paid force.
“Absolutely, your response time would be quicker because you would have somebody there, “he said.
However, Cochran is quick to defend the volunteer firefighter model.
“When I was at the height of my training, I had more training than a lot of the paid fire chiefs,” he said. “Volunteers have as much if not more training than the paid guys. They want to do it, it’s not a job. This is their calling in life and everything is put aside, including family.”
Despite the success of the volunteer model, Cochran said that it may be time again to look at the cost-benefit analysis of having more paid firefighters available.
“I think a study would be in line to give the officials what they really need to look at to make their decisions,” he said.