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Paid firefighters likely won’t happen

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By BEN CARLSON

Column as I see ’em …

It was the nightmare everyone talks about that finally came true.

A man is trapped inside his burning vehicle Friday on Versailles Road and, of course, a train blocks the crossing, delaying a full-throated response from first responders desperate to come to his rescue.

As we reported the tragedy on our website and social media platforms, outrage grew as people took to their Facebook pages to complain about the trains and demand that something be done.

But what?

Plenty of folks called for a fire station/EMS base on that side of the tracks. Others demanded it’s time for full-time, paid firefighters.

Those are both great ideas but are not likely to happen anytime soon, if at all.

It isn’t that the Lawrenceburg City Council, which operates the city fire department; the Anderson County Fire District, which is an independent body that sets its own annual tax rate; or the ambulance service, which operates under the fiscal court, don’t care. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Our first responders routinely place their own lives in jeopardy responding to our emergencies. The firefighters (excluding the two chiefs) don’t get paid, and wages at EMS are hideously low, considering what they do. There are people working fast food with higher hourly wages, folks.

The fact is that between the city, county and county fire district, there isn’t nearly enough revenue to see either idea to fruition.

In the aftermath of the wreck, I spoke privately with folks who have forgotten more about these issues than you or I will ever know. Here are some of their responses, in summary form and without attribution (they’re more interested in saving lives than throwing what would amount to political elbows).

Me? I’m fine with the latter.

Regarding the trains blocking intersections and delaying emergency services, that isn’t unique to Lawrenceburg.

“Trains hinder first responders in every city across our nation,” I was told. “Our ambulances routinely get stopped on Waller Avenue while going to the hospitals in Lexington.”

“People are getting stuck waiting for trains in every city. It doesn’t make it right, or make it a good scenario, but you can’t tell a train not to come through your town.”

Yes, that is very frustrating but also very true. Heck, even efforts by the city council to get trains not to actually stop at crossings fall mainly on deaf ears. Not coming through here at all? Forget about it.

As for a fire station on the other side of the tracks, that’s not likely to happen, either.

“People say the same thing about response times in the county’s western end,” I was told. “They live out there, but have typically moved out there from a larger city where there’s an ambulance or fire truck every 5 miles.

“They’d be looking at spending a whole lot of money for a very low run volume. Citizens can have whatever they want to pay taxes for, and you’d have to increase tax rates to have more stations.”

Then there’s the issue of paid firefighters, in and out of the city.

“First of all, 75 percent of all the firefighters in the United States are volunteers,” I was told.

In the county’s five fire stations, there would need to be a minimum of three firefighters on staff, per truck, which means hiring 15 firefighters per shift. At three shifts a day, that’s 45 firefighters with an annual salary of $1.3 million, without required retirement and other benefits.

At its current tax rate, the county fire district doesn’t collect that much revenue in an entire year, and it would be largely the same scenario for full-time paid city firefighters.

I could be very wrong, but I have no sense that the taxpayers of this county are interested in seeing their property taxes jacked to the moon to pay for any of this, but of course I could be wrong.

As it was so deftly pointed out in one of my conversations, taxpayers willingly allowed the fire services here to scrape by on pennies while at the same time sitting idly by as the public library has spent millions of dollars in the past decade adding on and now renovating its facility.

Perhaps someday, emergency services will be publically held in the same glowing light as the library, and folks won’t care — or at least act like they don’t care, when millions are spent on them, tax rate be damned.

Let’s just hope another person doesn’t have to nearly burn to death before they realize it.