Miss. fire dept. must hire more firefighters to avoid ISO rating drop

Despite citywide budget buts, the department must have a minimum of 18 firefighters on staff

By Lindsey Shelton
The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ, Miss. — The City of Natchez will likely have a year to make a handful of improvements to the Natchez Fire Department before the city’s fire rating drops.

The Mississippi State Rating Bureau notified the city last month that the city’s fire protection no longer warrants its current rating of 5 and outlined improvements that need to be made in order for the city to maintain its 5 rating.

MSRB grades municipalities and fire districts for fire insurance rating purposes. Ratings are evaluated every five years and are graded on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being the best rating.

When fire ratings drop, insurance rates for residents can increase.

In order to keep the city’s current rating, the Natchez Fire Department needs to hire more firefighters and maintain a minimum of 18 firefighters on duty at all times, the MSRB requires.The Natchez Board of Aldermen recently approved hiring more firefighters by cutting the fire department’s overtime budget and using that money to fund the positions.

However, under tight budget constraints and even allocating $750,000 in casino funds to balance the budget, the city was unable to budget for all the firefighters needed.

The board of aldermen asked for assistance in funding the positions from the Adams County Board of Supervisors, since the city fire department also covers the county. The supervisors denied the city’s request, saying the county’s budget was already set for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins today.

Mayor Darryl Grennell said earlier this week he plans to schedule a meeting soon in Jackson with representatives from MSRB and Mississippi Insurance Department to figure out next steps so Natchez’s fire rating does not drop.

The city has 60 days from the time of notification to present a plan to address the fire department’s needs, which included, in addition to personnel, a new ladder truck, a training facility and conducting pump tests.

The city is in the process of pursuing funding for a new ladder truck and may have rebate money within its budget that can be used for a truck. The department recently constructed a training facility and has begun conducting the necessary pump tests.

MSRB Superintendent of Public Protection Ty Windham said a municipality generally has a year to address the needs of fire protection before its rating is dropped.

“Most of the time, we give them about a year, because it takes time to hire firefighters and send them to the fire academy,” he said. “After a year, we touch base with them, and if they’re not quite there, and say, ‘Give us three more months,’ we can usually do that. If they can prove to us they are working toward it, we will work with them.”

Windham said the main concern at the Natchez Fire Department is personnel.

“I think the big hurdle was manpower, and it’s been that way for several years in Natchez,” he said.

Fire Chief Aaron Wesley has said the department is losing firefighters to higher-paying jobs and retirement faster than it can replace them.

Windham said MSRB generally feels one year to one and a half years is plenty of time for a municipality to address needs of its fire protection.

“If there’s not anything that has been done in a year, we would probably change (the fire rating).”

Copyright 2016 The Natchez Democrat

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