Fire Chief Jerry Harnish and Battalion Chief Jeff Devlin, who runs the West Knox area fire stations, described its services to 25 residents during a Community Conversation meeting in Farragut Town Hall Monday, Feb. 12. Fire Marshall Dan Johnson also attended.
“For us, education is a huge part of this,” Devlin said. [The fire department] is a very odd set-up so it’s very understandable for the community to not recognize it at first.”
“We’re having this Community Conversation [meeting] because over the last year-and-a-half I’ve received a few letters and I’ve noticed a few spirited discussion on our Nextdoor [website[ threads,” said Farragut North Ward Aldermen Louise Povlin, a strong advocate of the meeting.
“So, I thought, it’s a hard place to get the information out that there’s a lot of information on Rural/Metro, and from the questions I’ve gotten in letters, I’ve gotten a lot of education on what [the Town] can and can’t do as a municipality and why we have Rural/Metro.
“It’s a rather novel way, on the East Coast, on how to manage your fire protection services,” Povlin said.
During the question-and-answer period, Smith Road resident John Nehls asked, “What can the Town do?”
If the penetration of contracts increased, he asked if the contract rates go down, investments go up or [ISO] class ratings decrease?
”All of the above,” Harnish said. “The rates are going down now … if you can attract more contracts, it’s financially better for us to continually lower the price and get more contracts than it is to try to put it on the backs of fewer property owners.”
Harnish, who has worked in West Knox County since 1980 and has been fire chief since 2007, said there are 699 fire departments in Tennessee’s 95 counties.
Rural/Metro Fire Department, which started in 1977 and has 16 fire stations in the county serving 250,000 residents, is subscription based, Devlin said.
“What’s unique about us is we are a private company,” he added. “We provide fire protection for the community, emergency medical services, rescue services [and] HAZMAT [hazardous materials] services. Sometimes that’s on a contract basis with a governmental body. A lot of times it’s through individual contracts with property owners based on the square footage of your home.
“To get commercial businesses to pay us and do [the subscriptions] is difficult. Our penetration rate is better in Farragut, but overall, it’s about 50 percent, so it’s not what we want.”
Rural Metro does not get tax dollars for its services, he said.
The Town of Farragut has two fire stations providing its services and has a contract with the Town.
“We want to continue to be really cost-effective for you,” Devlin said. “We want the community to spend its money elsewhere — schools or the streets.”
To keep down its charges, Harnish said, “We need [residents] to subscribe.”
The fire department has a “core, elite career full-time staff that we supplement with on-call reserves,” Devlin said.