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County adopts policies for volunteer fire departments

Mike Cazalas
The Star

As the rebuilding and restructuring continue in the wake of destruction brought by Hurricane Michael two years ago, local governments are using the opportunity to better structure their organizations for more than the next disaster.

Gulf County Director of Emergency Management Matt Herring, who is also the county's Fire Coordinator, said he hopes to not just help things be more organized but to have it set up in a way that makes sense for cohesiveness now and in the future.

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That, he said, is the motive behind the County Commission last week issuing a set of standards, policies and protocol for the departments that covers everything from selecting a new chief to new equipment purchases.

Training like this exercise with the South Gulf County Volunteer Fire Department last year is heavily emphasized. Port St. Joe Star/USA TODAY NETWORK

“I just started this job on Oct. 1 and it just seemed like it would be good for everyone to be working off the same page,” he said. “There weren’t any standard policies in place and I don’t think there ever has been.”

Gulf County Emergency Service Zones

For Gulf County and its 10 volunteer fire departments that combine to provide coverage to about 756 square miles, the hurricane was more than destructive, it claimed the life of Brad Price, the county’s fire coordinator.

Price died Oct. 18, 2018, 10 days after the storm when a tree fell on his tractor while he was helping family members clear debris in Wewahitchka. Price also served as a firefighter/paramedic in Bay County.

Training like this exercise last summer with the South Gulf County Volunteer Fire Department last year is heavily emphasized.

The county has 10 volunteer fire departments covering about 750 square miles. They cover most of the county with the exception of the City of Port St. Joe and are spread from the Stone Mille Creek Volunteer Fire Department to the north down to Howard Creek 30 miles to the southeast.

What it is not, Herring wanted to make clear, is any kind of move toward changing the volunteer department model.

“The county doesn’t have any intent on going to a paid fire department,” he said. “It’s just the intent as we go forward with this that there will be policies and procedures that everyone will follow. We want to ensure that happens.”

The county averages about two calls a day and they can run the gamut from a fire to a medical emergency.

“Several of our departments run medical calls in the rural areas,” he said. “We have volunteers who are certified first-responders.”

At the moment the county has 140 volunteer firefighters, people who without pay sign up to suit up at a moment’s notice to respond to emergencies and Herring said they are doing the job.

“For a small county on a tight budget, we’re doing fairly well,” he said. “The county’s good about saving so every few years they can buy a fire truck or what’s needed, but the whole operation is a testament to the families and the volunteers who make it work.”

Training varies, he said, with most meeting and training at least once a month and some, like the South Gulf County Volunteer Fire Department, meeting weekly. That department’s assistant chief, Mike Barrett, is assisting Herring with training and answering questions about the new policies and procedures.

“He brings 30-40 years of firefighting experience from South Dallas so he’s a big help with the training,” said Herring, himself a former police chief in Port St. Joe and before that he worked for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.