St. Clair News Aegis (Pell City, AL)

News

December 9, 2010

New London VFD quits

Pell City — Months of argument over the purchase of a new fire truck has left the New London Sewer, Water and Fire Protection Authority in Cropwell without a fire chief or the core of its dedicated firefighters.

Former Fire Chief Jason Lee hung up his helmet last week, and was quickly followed by the first assistant chief.

“Chairman Lee called me, put (board member) Bobby Jones on the phone; he cussed me out, called me names, so I hung up and said, ‘I quit.’ That’s why I resigned,” Lane said. “They’re putting a price on firefighters’ lives, and it’s not a responsibility I want anymore.”  

After speaking with Lee to find out what happened, the rest of the volunteer firefighters followed suit Monday evening, dropping off their red bags of equipment after a heated meeting where citizens and firefighters demanded answers from the board.

“I would say that if someone calls 911 tomorrow, no one from New London is going to answer,” Lane said.  

The current conflict began in April, with annual fire engine pump tests. Much of the discussion Monday night centered on a 30-year-old engine, which Lane said failed the pump test. But members of the board assert that it passed.

The engine was the crux of the argument, because with that engine functioning, the board asserted there was no need for another just yet, after purchasing a new engine in January of this year. Lane said he’s been asking for a new truck for months to replace the ones that did not pass the pump tests.

“In another year or so, we’ll buy another truck,” Chairman Archie Lee said, “to spread them out. If you say a truck goes bad in 20 years, they’re going to come due at the same time.”

For many attendees, though, another year was too long to wait. One local business owner spoke of watching her business burn down while waiting for Pell City fire engines to arrive, because New London firefighters didn’t feel safe driving their own fire engine to the scene.

A financial report approved during the meeting showed an excess of $600,000 in the department’s bank account — more than enough to purchase a new fire engine, according to Lane.  

“It’s one thing when you don’t have the proper equipment because you can’t afford it, but when you’re talking about $623,000 and they said the last truck we bought we paid $175,000 for, what’s that out of another $625,000? That still leaves us half a million dollars,” he said.

Lane also stated that another truck that was not discussed during the meeting was tested and also failed. The truck was rated to pump 1,000 gallons, but only pumped 800 gallons.

“There’s a stamp on the side of the truck that says how much it should pump, and they’re going to change that stamp and say that it can do 750,” Lane said. “You can’t just change it. The engine is worn out, it won’t do it. Next year, when it’s doing 600 [gallons], they’ll change it again.”

For former firefighter Kathy Henry, the problem isn’t simply the lack of a new fire engine, but in how the fire department as a whole is run.

“Since I’ve been in the fire department, there have been five different men that were chief. And every time one of them leaves, it seems to be because they can’t get the backing from the board that they ask for,” Henry said. “If we’d had one fire chief, maybe two, in the 12 years [I’ve been here] that couldn’t get what they want, I’d say maybe it’s something to do with them. But when you’ve had five different guys having the same problems over and over, saying they’re not being backed by the water board, they’re not getting the equipment they need, and the money’s there … The common denominator is the board.”

As the meeting adjourned and the duffle bags piled up as each firefighter left their position, the atmosphere was one of fear — both the firefighters and community members said that they felt unprotected.

When asked during the meeting who would be providing fire protection, board chairman Archie Lee said, “We’ve got it covered,” declining to provide any additional information as to who would respond to fire calls.

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