County Leaders Discuss Unified Fire Department With Volunteer Firefighters

May 20, 2008


The effort to consolidate the volunteer fire departments in Escambia County into one unified department is continuing, with many area volunteer firefighters left with questions about their futures in the consolidated department. The Escambia County Commission wants the unified department with a single command structure to bring the county’s paid and volunteer firefighters under one command by October 1.

Recently, Ferry Pass Volunteer Fire Department Chief Robbie Whitfield was hired by the county as its Volunteer Coordinator. Whitfield and Escambia Fire Rescue Chief Kenny Perkins were charged by the commission with coming up with unification plan.

Monday night, Whitfield told the Walnut Hill Volunteer Fire Department that he is on the side of the volunteers.

“I appreciate what you do; it takes a lot,” Whitfield said.

Whitfield was joined by Century Volunteer Fire Department Chief Regi Burkett, representing the Volunteer Firefighter’s Association and District 5 County Commissioner Kevin White.

“I feel like some of the commissioners would throw the volunteers out tomorrow,” Walnut Hill Volunteer Fire Department Chief Robert Stewart said “and we are just trying to keep the volunteers afloat.”

“Not Kevin,” Whitfield said. “He has gone to bat more than any other commissioner for the volunteers.”

As for the commission’s October 1 target date for the fire department consolidation, Whitfield said progress is being made.

“October 1 is just a target,” he told the volunteer firefighters. “As long as we are making progress, we are OK.”

“My only agenda in this is to make sure the volunteers are treated fairly,” Whitfield said.

“Robbie is not going to forget that he was a volunteer once,” White said.

“But the biggest change up here (in a north end volunteer department) is nothing,” Whitfield told the Walnut Hill volunteers.

Members of the WHVFD expressed several concerns, including concerns over a command structure in the new unified department.

Many volunteers, not just those in Walnut Hill’s Station 15, have expressed concerns about paid career firefighters not respecting the volunteer’s command.

Under the plan last discussed with the commission, the highest ranking officer, whether they be paid or volunteer, would be in command at a scene, except when an “incident command” has been established.

“The volunteer chief is in charge, even when the paid firefighters show up on a scene, except with when you have established an incident command,” Whitfield said.

One of the first firefighters on the scene of a major incident will establish an “incident command” over the scene.

“When an incident command is setup when you get their first,” Whitfield said, “that is the commanding officer. Even if it is the lowest ranking member of the department that sets up the incident command, that person is in charge of the incident. The incident commander is ultimately in charge.”

Concern was expressed by the volunteers about individual station identities…each volunteer department in the county currently as its own identity, logo and sometimes mascot.

“We will be Escambia Fire Rescue,” Whitfield said. “But you’ll still have Walnut Hill, Cantonment, Century, Molino and McDavid volunteer fire departments.” He added that each department will keep funds they may raise, such as the money raised each year by the Walnut Hill VFD with their annual fish fry.

And none of the departments should expect to lose their equipment either.

Don’t worry about someone walking into your station and saying ‘I am taking this engine or that piece of equipment’,” Whitfield said. “There’s enough equipment in this county; we don’t have to move any around.”

“I’ve been trying for years to get two more substations,” Stewart said. “Some of my people are not covered in any way or form. That’s a concern on their ISO.”

The ISO rating system is used to rank fire service protection and determine insurance rates. For a great deal of the Walnut Hill district, the ISO is a “5″ on a 10 point scale. But for some far away from the department’s main station in Walnut Hill or its substation in Bratt, that rating jumps higher and costs residents much more in insurance premiums.

Walnut Hill’s Station 15 has the largest geographic fire district in the county at 197 square miles. That compares to Whitfield’s Ferry Pass district at 17.67 square miles.

“From us sitting here in this station tonight, it is 20 minutes to the other side of this district,” Stewart said.

“You do one heck of a job up here,” Whitfield told Stewart. “I appreciate what you do very much.”

Right now, volunteers in the county need to focus on training, and members of the general public need to focus on contacting their commissioners in support of the volunteers, Whitfield said.

“Write a handwritten, signed letter to your commissioners explaining what kind of fire service is up here (in North Escambia),” Burkett said. “Community involvement is not going to hurt you one bit.”

Whitefield, White and Burkett agreed to a suggestion by Stewart that a community forum be held to allow the public the chance to have their say about the new unified county fire department. The date and time for the meeting will be announced here on

Pictured above: District 5 Commissioner Kevin White (left) and Escambia Fire Rescue Volunteer Coordinator Robbie Whitfield listen to volunteer firefighter concerns Monday night in Walnut Hill. exclusive photo.


Comments are closed.