City fire trucks in need of rescue

A McComb firefighter adjusts an American flag in front of a fire truck before a funeral procession last year.

The McComb Fire Department’s truck shortage is close to reaching a crisis level, according to the fire chief, who asked for board approval to apply for a “long shot” grant to pay the cost of a new fire truck.

“Our situation involving fire trucks continues to worsen. We are not there yet, but we are approaching a crisis in your fire department,” Fire Chief Gary McKenzie said, adding that the department will still be able to protect residents despite the jam. “Please rest assured that while we are in dire need of a fire truck, and things are bad, that McComb Fire Department is capable, ready and willing to meet the needs of our citizens.

“Now is not the time to panic. We are going to do our jobs.”

McKenzie said all fire trucks have a 20-year rating, and once they hit that mark, the fire rating for the city worsens.

The city has a Class 5 fire rating. If it slips to a Class 6, businesses could see higher insurance rates in the range of 5 to 10%, while residents’ premiums could increase 3 to 5%. McKenzie said the city has taken other steps to preserve its rating in terms of other equipment and training that he hopes would prevent a worse rating.

He said Engine 12 is 24 years old, Engine 14 just turned 20 and Ladder 16 is 18 years old, meaning most of the city’s fire trucks are beyond their lifespan.

To compound this issue, the city has had engine troubles in one of its trucks, leading the department to borrow a truck from the Summit Volunteer Fire Department.

“We can hold our own as long we only have one truck beyond that age limit as long as we have a program in place to replace them on a regular basis. We have not been able to do that,” McKenzie said.

He has applied for the Assistance to Firefighters Grant, which he described as extremely competitive. If approved, the city would have to provide a 5% match for the grant.

“This grant is a long shot, but at this point, I have no choice. ... We have to do something, and I am running out of options,” he said. “We absolutely need a fire truck as soon as possible. We need to address this.”

McKenzie said even if the department receives the grant it would be at least 18 months before the new fire engine could be purchased.

“We could be looking at 18 months ... before the truck gets here. I don’t know that we are going to make it 18 months,” he said.

Mayor Quordiniah Lockley asked McKenzie if the department could do what it has done in the past and put a down payment on a used “demonstrator” fire engine, which dealerships show to prospective customers. McKenzie said that was an option.

McKenzie said the department had $100,000 from insurance rebates that was supposed to be used as a down payment on a new truck. However, a City Hall clerical error led to that money being used to purchase air bottles instead. the money was supposed to be replaced through a budget amendment, but that didn’t happen.

McKenzie said it would take until August to build the fund back up to cover a down payment.

Selectmen offered several solutions, including borrowing $500,000 from the utility capital improvement fund, asking the legislature for help using CARES Act funds and using money saved from refinancing the city’s 2003 and 2020 bonds.

The city has turned to loaning money to itself from the capital improvement fund in the past. Last year it borrowed $1.2 million to cover employee salaries.

Selectman Ronnie Brock said that would only work if the city has a plan to repay the money. Selectman Devante Johnson asked Interim City Administrator Ebony Ross to work on possible solutions.

Lockley noted that the Public Works Department plans to use the fund to make much-needed repairs on city water tanks.

Lockley asked board attorney Angela Cockerham, who is a legislator, if the state Legislature could help. Cockerham said it was possible, noting that Rep. Daryl Porter Jr., D-Summit, had put in a request last year. Lockley said he would speak to the delegation about the matter.

Next, the board discussed the reimbursement the city got from the Federal CARES Act, which paid for firefighter and police salaries during the beginning of the pandemic. Police Chief Garland Ward wanted to use the money for hazard pay for first responders.

City officials also are considering using the money for body cameras, and Johnson asked Ward to get the board prices for them.

Lastly, the board spoke about the possibility of refinancing two bonds, which Cockerham has been working on. She said there would be a savings of about $153,000 that could be used for the down-payment on the fire truck.

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