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Fire chief addresses volunteer firefighter issues

Staff Writer
Gonzales Weekly Citizen
St. Amant Volunteer Fire Station

What do we as residents of Ascension Parish really know about the emergency services of our parish? Education to the residents of our parish is important. With the recent passage of another tax this past week in Ascension, many people have called, texted, and met with me about the “Firefighter Tax” that did not pass a couple years ago on the east bank of the Ascension Parish.

Let me clear some of the air. Congratulations to that group for the extra money. You have worked hard. You asked the public for more money to complete your mission, and the public agreed to give you the extra money you needed to take care of the animals of our parish. I truly do not believe that the people of our Parish that worked so hard to pass the animal tax this past weekend, were against the firefighter tax a couple years ago they did not pass.

But I will say this, there was an elected official that went public more than once against the firefighter tax, but was 100 percent for the animal tax. But it’s amazing, he lives in an area of the parish where they have paid firefighters, not volunteers.

My post tonight is not to bash people, and again my post is on my Facebook page, not any of my public Facebook pages. I truly believe that education the great people of our parish is important.

One of the things I hear daily is, the reason why the Firefighter Tax did not pass on the east bank of the parish is simple, the residents are getting a very good service for FREE, so why in the world pay for a service that is not broken.

On January 1, 2019 I will start my 38th year as a volunteer firefighter in Ascension Parish and my 32nd as a volunteer fire chief in Ascension Parish. So yes, this is a subject that I strongly believe I can at least list some facts about in regards to our Emergency Services of our wonderful Parish of Ascension.

What I hear a lot is simple: James, people just don’t know. You must continue to educate the residents of our parish. And no, I’m not quarterbacking another tax for Emergency Services on the east bank. I just want to mention some facts that some of our residents may not really know about how Emergency Services are operated across our parish.

Let’s start off with the west bank of Ascension Parish. The entire west bank of Ascension Parish has a current Fire Rating of a 4. For anyone that may be confused about the Property Insurance Association Rating, the closer you get to a 1, the better your home owners Insurance Premiums will be. To explain it better than that, Baton Rouge has an Insurance Rating of a 1, which is the best you can have. Residents of Baton Rouge love their Class 1 Fire Rating. Back to our west bank, every call that takes place on the west bank of the parish that occurs, the Donaldsonville Fire Department (Which is a PAID department, responds). It does not matter if the call is in Modeste or even McCall, the paid department is responding to the entire rural part of the west bank. And before you ask, the answer is yes. They do have volunteers on the west bank. Matter of fact, the leader on the west bank told me we could not survive on the west bank without our volunteers. So, what the main point here is, no matter where a call takes place on the west bank, a paid firetruck with paid people are responding at the time the calls come in.

Let’s now move to the City of Gonzales. All-paid department, no volunteers (may have two support people). They enjoy the best PIAL Rating in the Parish of Ascension, a Class Rating of 2. They have two fire stations in the City of Gonzales with full-time firefighters around the clock along with an ambulance service. And yes, they pay a separate tax inside the city limits for emergency services. In 2001, the City of Gonzales passed a half-cent sales tax for fire, police, and garbage service. They also have a 3.27 mil property tax in the city. Again, Class 2 Rating.

Let’s now move to the north end of the parish known as Ascension Parish Fire Dist. #3, which is the Prairieville community. Most of my life this area was volunteer, but in 2005 they passed a tax in this area also of the parish. They are now a full-time department, with no volunteers and they enjoy a PIAL Rating of 3. Did everything they promised with the tax money they got in 2005. Hired paid people, bought new trucks and built new fire stations. Again, paid department with paid firefighters at every station. They have and enjoy a PIAL Rating of 3.

Now let’s move to the largest fire district in Ascension Parish. Ascension Parish Fire Dist. #1, 80 percent of the fire service on the east bank of Ascension Parish. All volunteer. Six volunteer fire departments: St. Amant, Galvez-Lake, 7th Dist., 5th Ward, Geismar, and Sorrento that have a class rating of a 5, as volunteers. Tried to pass a tax in Ascension a couple years ago for paid firefighters, new fire trucks, and new fire stations. Tax fails. There was a group that went door-to-door, organized public meetings, and placed ads in the local paper and fought the tax from day one. They even went as far as telling our volunteers that once the tax passed, the people that take over are going to run all the volunteers off. Even had elected officials fight the fire tax. It’s amazing how quiet this group was on the recent tax last weekend.

So, everything that is done with this district is done with volunteers. We do pay some contract workers that we pay during the day to cover these stations and these communities while all the volunteers are at their regular jobs.

Don’t take my word for this. Do some research. The trend across the United States with volunteer firefighters is dropping off at a very large margin. We continue to be blessed to have volunteers that work hard daily to protect these six east bank communities. But my friend, the odds are against us that over the next couple years volunteers will continue to trend off. When that happens, the services will suffer.

Right now we hear about it when a very large home burns down. You hear the rumors, "Man, what took the fire department so long to get here. Again, volunteers. Or you're at a function and a love one suffers a heart attack. Volunteers respond. Comments are made: "Man, it took y'all a little while to get here to my love one." Again, volunteers. What's more upsetting is to hear someone complain who has never volunteered in any volunteer department in our parish. The group that fought the fire tax a couple years ago, none of them belong to a volunteer fire department.

One area of our parish currently has one volunteer firefighter in their community fire department. A very highly populated area with very expensive homes. Know why they never saw a difference in services? Because the Ascension Parish Fire Dist. #1 Board of Directors asked another area of the parish to please respond to this area every time they have a call. So, the people who live in this area, even though their Volunteer Fire Department technically only has one member, never saw a decrease in services. Because the neighboring department is responding to all their calls daily.

So, my friends, I will end this long post by saying this. There is going to be a day when the trend of volunteers is going to drop off. They have more than one job to work, and they also have families to raise just like you do. When that continues to happen, the services will also fall off. We as residents need to understand. You are getting the service for free, and you are dealing with all volunteers.

Fire Chief James E. LeBlanc – 32 years Fire Chief in our Parish of Ascension

I’m listening!