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Signs support Jonesboro Fire Department

By Ed Brock

Jonesboro attorney Corey Sanders hasn't been following the story of the possible dissolution of the Jonesboro Volunteer Fire Department.

But Sanders said he was happy to hang a sign supporting the fire department in the window of his Main Street office when somebody asked him to do so.

"If it's volunteer I don't see a problem with having it," Sanders said.

The signs, bearing the slogan "JFD, Keep our volunteer fire department" or "We support JFD," having been popping up in the windows of businesses and yards of houses since the Jonesboro City Council approved a budget earlier this month that essentially cut the department's funding. The council, which has discussed the option of contracting with the county for fire service, has yet to officially disband the department and at least one council member plans to ask that the budget be reopened for further discussion on the department.

Ed Wise, a volunteer with the department who works at Pope-Dickson Funeral Home, has been distributing the signs and has one in front of his house on Lee Street.

"Ever since we put one in front of the funeral home I've been getting about three calls a day from people requesting them," Wise said.

The signs have touched Jonesboro Fire Chief Jimmy Wiggins.

"I think it's great what the citizens have done," Wiggins said.

Jonesboro Mayor Joy Day said she's glad to see people getting involved.

"I think it's great that people are expressing their opinions and we're going to do the best we can for the city," Day said.

Day said she was hoping to meet with Wiggins today to discuss the future of the department. Wiggins said he's been available for a meeting for the past couple of weeks and remains available.

The budget as it stands now includes $86,694 for the expense of the relatively new fire station off North Main Street and nothing else for the department that had a $346,064 budget in 2004.

According to a statement from the council, Wiggins had talked to the City Council on several occasions about the needs of the fire department, beginning in October 2003 when the department requested four full-time positions for the 2004 budget.

Wiggins had told the council that it was difficult to get new volunteers, the city needed to replace one of its two fire engines and buy a third, and that there was a need for mutual aid with the county.

"Based on the concerns brought to the council by the fire chief and new rules and regulations being pushed by the National Fire Protection Association, the city council elected to consider its options in terms of providing fire service," the statement reads.

The council had concluded it has two options, one being to create a kind of hybrid department that would rely on a mix of volunteers and paid staff. In that option, a total of up to eight firefighters would be hired, starting with four in 2005 and up to another four in the following two years, for a total cost of $800,000.

The second option would be to contract with the Clayton County Fire Department to staff the fire station on North Main Street at roughly $372,000.

After the emotionally charged Dec. 15 meeting in which the council voted for the budget the city asked for the restoration of automatic aid between the city and county fire departments. Under that agreement both departments are supposed to be dispatched simultaneously to cover incidents in the city, but in the early hours after the agreement was restarted only the county was dispatched.

Clayton County Fire Chief Alex Cohilas said that the county's Commission Chairman Crandle Bray had received a letter from Day asking the county to provide service to the city without a contract and thought that meant only the county department would respond. Bray and Day said they met later and cleared up the misunderstanding, establishing that both departments should be dispatched.

"Certainly they were told to dispatch our fire department. They're still our fire department," Day said.

On Thursday the Jonesboro department was also not dispatched to a early-morning fire on S. Main Street and the county responded alone. Cohilas said that was a result of a misunderstanding by the dispatcher.

Councilmen Rick Yonce and Wallace Norrington voted against the budget and Councilman Clifford "Rip" Sewell was absent from the meeting.

Yonce said he has asked that at the council's next meeting, be it a called meeting or the regular session scheduled for Jan. 10, the issue be included on the agenda. He wants to look at the possibility of making cuts in other departments in order to keep the fire department or holding a referendum on the issue.

"There are other options," Yonce said.