For several years Bradley County has had fire protection from a combination of paid Cleveland firefighters and the Bradley County Volunteer Fire Department. Even though the city is fully paid for fighting fires in the county by the same fire tax rate in the fringe areas that is collected in the city, unselfish volunteers drop their own work when there is a fire in the county and go help the city for free. Recently city fire chief Gaylor thanked the volunteers for their free help by complaining that working with them "puts our (city) firefighters in harm's way" (Cleveland Daily Banner, April 14). There's an easy solution to that problem. The volunteers can simply stand by and watch the city people do the job they are getting paid to do, anyway.
At the same time the chief also complained that fringe area residents get better fire protection than city residents because they "also get response from the Bradley County Volunteer Fire Department." Well, Chief, make up your mind. Which way is it? Are the volunteers just a dangerous nuisance or are they providing valuable fire protection? You can't have it both ways.
Perhaps a bit of history would be helpful. About 1978 Bradley County contracted with the city of Cleveland to provide fire protection to the rural areas. In the following years the city fire department was pretty good at cooling off the ashes, but rarely got there in time or had enough water to do much else. In the early '90s, under the leadership of a city manager who seemed to regard Bradley County as an enemy that needed to be destroyed, the city suddenly raised its price several fold with no promise of improved service. County citizens disturbed at the price and quality of the city's service formed a group to lobby for improved fire protection. This eventually led to the county commission establishing the Bradley County Volunteer Fire Department and building a string of county fire stations, a project which is not yet quite complete. After the volunteer department was formed by interested citizens, the county commission which was in office at the time, in an outrageous double-cross of the volunteers, turned them over to their worst enemy, the city fire department. It did everything it could think of to destroy what it regarded as a competing department. Fortunately, the present fire contract with the city restored control of the county fire department to county personnel, where it belongs. The county executive received some criticism about the present contract when it was signed, but time has shown that it is a vast improvement over the previous one.
While it is a great step forward, we should regard it as a necessary transition step to a fully independent Bradley County Fire Department, which does not depend on the city fighting fires in the county. The city's fire chief appears to agree with this view, based on his complaints about having to fight fires in the county, but whether those responsible for balancing the city budget will be eager to give up the present windfall of county tax money remains to be seen.
It is likely that Chief Gaylor's main worry is not that the volunteers will not do well, but that they will do too well. That would demonstrate that the city of Cleveland could save a great deal of money by depending partly on volunteers. Nationwide, over 70% of firefighters are volunteers. Why does Cleveland need to have 100% paid firefighters? Why is Cleveland different from most of the rest of the country?