By RACHAEL LONG / Photos submitted by Ben Matthews
After a heated meeting of town department heads over committee budget requests Monday, Nolensville Volunteer Fire Department (NVFD) Chief Brian Moat walked out of the meeting in frustration.
His requests to add paid personnel, including a paid chief, to the entirely volunteer fire department were not included in the first draft of the Nolensville FY 2019-2020 budget.
“I was under the belief that the leadership of the town was more supportive than I found out Monday,” Moat said. “I had found out last week that the mayor was not including any of that in his budget. After two work meetings, I found out that we weren’t going any further than I thought.”
“We certainly think a lot of the volunteer fire department and certainly have included them in our budget,” Mayor Jimmy Alexander said Thursday. “We’ve given them more money this year, and that’s what we do every year.”
When asked about his decision not to include Moat’s budget requests for paid personnel in his draft, Alexander said, “Well, we had all of our department heads in and they all had a wish list, and we granted some of their wishes and others we couldn’t, so that’s the way it goes every year.”
The mayor said that as commercial development expands, more money will be available to address all the town’s needs.
As the town continues to approve new developments, more people and structures are moving into what was once a quiet town in Middle Tennessee. Now, Moat says the volunteer fire department needs more resources to keep up with that growth.
While the budget has yet to be officially read or reviewed by the Board of Mayor and Alderman (BOMA), Moat fears the town may not adequately include the needs of the men and women who keep the town safe from fires.
If it had not been for a previously scheduled staff meeting at the NVFD the evening of Wednesday, March 27, Mike and Sharon Rutledge may very well have lost everything they own.
The volunteer firefighters responded to a residential structure fire at 1678 Sunset Road in the early evening. About 30 firefighters were able to respond to the scene where Moat said the back of the home was fully involved. Before it was completely extinguished, Moat said it probably burned for two to three hours.
Because of their response time and the sheer number of firefighters present, they were able to stop the fire from spreading into the living room or to the adjacent garage.
Home owner Mike Rutledge said no one was home when the fire began. Both he and his wife, Sharon, had been at work in Nashville and were traveling back when they heard about the fire.
“We were trying to get home from Nashville, but you know how traffic gets,” Rutledge said. “We couldn’t get here.”
He has sons who live in the area, and he said it was up to them to get to the house first. One son, Josh, saved three of his father’s antique cars by moving them out of the adjacent garage as flames engulfed the home. The vehicles were a 1948 Ford Coupe, a 1955 Chevy with its original body and a 1935 Chevy.
One vehicle was destroyed in the fire. It belonged to Jo Rutledge, Mike’s father. It was a 1969 Chevy truck with 72,000 miles.
At the scene Wednesday night, there was some speculation among the family that the fire stemmed from a problem with the heating and ventilation unit. Moat said no official cause will be known until investigations are complete.
The Rutledges have lived in Nolensville for 32 years. Mike said he and Sharon plan to stay on the property in some sort of temporary housing while they figure out a long-term plan.
“We lost everything,” Rutledge said. “I’m just glad me and her didn’t get hurt. It’s just worldly things. We’ll put it back. It’ll take us a long time to get back on our feet, but we’ll get there.”
Though it may feel like they lost everything in the moment, framed pictures remained on the living room walls and some furniture stood under the piles of ash.
Had there not been a meeting at the station that night, Moat said the home would have been completely destroyed.
Three engines, four tankers, one rescue truck, a medic unit, an ambulance and a rehab truck were all at the scene from several local departments.
“If this was a normal, volunteer response, it would have been a lot worse,” Moat said Wednesday. “This is what happens when you have paid people…they have things that were saved in the house, and that’s a very old house. These things are like tinder boxes when they burn up. This is the kind of response the people in this town will get if we have a paid, on-duty crew.”
In the middle of the call, Moat said the department got a call about a motor vehicle accident on Rocky Fork Road.
“We had to scrub people from here, put them in another apparatus and respond,” Moat said. “What I want people to know is how many resources it takes to operate just a very small house fire like this.”
After extinguishing the fire Wednesday, volunteers returned to the station on Nolensville Road to discuss the run, get feedback from the chief and command staff and learn from any missteps.
Moat says it is a chance for “esprit de corps,” or building camaraderie among the team.
Waiting for them at the station were other volunteers with bottled water and hot food from Martin’s Bar-B-Que.
The firefighters changed out of their uniforms and back into the civilian clothes they wear most of the day. They were hungry and tired from springing into action at a moment’s notice.
Most of the volunteers work full-time jobs before they arrive at the fire station for duty. For some, this fire was the first time their brand-new training had been put to the test.
“That’s about as good as it gets for a stop,” Moat told the volunteers, who had gathered in the upstairs training classroom. “If there’s a proud papa moment, it’s tonight.”
Moat called volunteers out by name and praised their efforts. He also mentioned areas of improvement to keep in mind for the next call.
The debriefing is a chance for members of the NVFD to learn from their mistakes, to pat each other on the back and to continue to foster the bond unique to men and women who put their lives on the line.
On Wednesday, it was also a chance for Moat to inform his team about the tension between the department and town leaders.
“The other night at the BOMA meeting, I became sadly, sadly disappointed in our mayor and our town administrator. I have been a good steward of the town since I became chief, I’ve worked with them,” Moat said.
Moat told his team that he was most disappointed in Mayor Alexander, who he said would “not look me in the face.”
“I will tell you right now that I have made it my personal goal as the Chief to take on [Town] Hall, because as most of you have probably seen on 411 and the Fire Department [Facebook] page, we have a lot of support in the community.”
Some of that support, he said, has come from town Alderman Derek Adams.
“The necessary things that government should be doing [are] infrastructure, public safety and schools. Schools are the county, infrastructure we’re working on, so public safety is next,” Adams said.
Adams is a proponent of creating a combination fire department and securing a ladder truck, sooner rather than later.
“We just have to get creative in how we’re gonna make it happen,” Adams said. “Again, I’m just glad it’s an issue that we’re now talking about.”
Moat also told his staff about a conversation he had with a member of the MTAS Review Board.
“He clearly said, ‘You have 500 runs a year, [that’s] the transition point where you guys should be starting to transition to a combination department,’” Moat recounted. This year, he said, the department has already had 187 calls to date and is on track to see between 850 and 900 total calls.
“We have been patient, we have been good stewards of the town, we’ve worked hard with what we’ve been given to make this town proud,” Moat said. “But now it’s time for the town…to give back to us and start us transitioning to the next phase.”
The Town of Nolensville had a population in 2010 of 5,861 people. In seven years, that number has nearly doubled, with total 11,097 residents.
Since then, developments have sprung up on either side of the town’s main drag, Nolensville Road. More houses are built daily, and the problem of traffic congestion continues to grow.
According to the NVFD records, the department’s call volume has increased every year. In 2018, the department had 667 runs, more than doubling the number of calls in 2011.
Three months into 2019, volunteers have already responded to 187 calls.
Moat says the department is projected to hit between 850 and 900 calls this year.
During the past six months, the volunteers at the NVFD have spent more than 6,094 hours in both training and service.
To put that in perspective, someone who works a full time job at 40-hours per week spends 960 hours at work across the span of six months.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA), nearly 75 percent of fire departments in the state of Tennessee are entirely volunteer. That’s roughly four percent higher than the national average of fully volunteer fire departments. Only nine percent of fire departments in the United States are entirely staffed by career firefighters.
With so many departments staffed by volunteers and call volumes on the rise, volunteer firefighters are in high demand these days.
Research collected in 2018 by the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) shows that the call volumes for volunteer fire departments have increased exponentially since the 1980s, but the number of volunteer firefighters has stayed roughly the same.
In 1984, there were 808,200 volunteer firefighters in the United States responding to 11,890,000 calls. In 2015, there were 814,850 volunteers in the United States with a call volume that was much higher, with 33,635,500 calls.
The NVFC’s research suggests several reasons for why many local volunteer fire departments struggle to meet staffing needs. The increased prevalence of a two-income family working multiple jobs and increased time for training demands as fire departments take on more roles (like emergency medical services, Hazmat and technical rescue).
A fire department’s capability to suppress fires in the community is measured by a corporation that works for insurance agencies called the Insurance Services Office, Inc. (ISO). Each fire department, be it fully paid or fully volunteer, has an ISO Public Protection Classification (PPC) rating, available to the public based on communication, water supply and fire department. The scale is 1 through 10, with 10 being no fire protection.
These ratings can affect insurance rates for both property and businesses. According to ISO, most United States insurers use PPC information in the decision-making process when deciding coverage to offer or prices to charge for property insurance, be it personal or commercial.
According to a 2018 survey by the MTAS Research and Information Center, the Nolensville Volunteer Fire Department had an ISO rating of 4. The 2012 fire services MTAS study showed that only 128 out of 1,021 fire departments in the state of Tennessee had an equal or better rating.
The Brentwood Fire and Rescue Department had a 2018 ISO rating of 2, the Franklin Fire Department had an ISO rating of 1, and the Williamson County Emergency Management had a split ISO rating of 4/9.
The Nolensville Volunteer Fire Department was founded in 1973 with 20 members. The department originally purchased land at 7347 Nolensville Road — where it still sits today — but eventually donated the land to Williamson County, who offered to build a fire hall for the department in 1991.
When the Town of Nolensville was re-chartered in 1996, the fire services the NVFD had already been providing for the community continued. At the time, the town did not have adequate resources to start a separate fire department.
The NVFD, therefore, provides contractual fire services to the town, which in turn allocates funds from each year’s budget to the department for these services.
Because the NVFD is not a department of the town, relations between the entities have occasionally been strained, especially where budgets are concerned.
In 2012, a fire services study was done at the request of town leaders to look into options available to the town for fire protection. As a result, the NVFD chief now brings monthly reports in front of BOMA and the town continues to contract fire services from the department.
The study, which details operating costs of transitioning to a combination fire department or even starting its own municipal fire department, said this: “This report can identify some trigger points for increasing the level of fire service, but there is no formula that says, ‘Now is the time.’”
“This is far from over”
An excerpt from the 2012 MTAS fire services study reads, “The current demand for services is within the capabilities of the NVFD, but there will come a time when the NVFD, simply because of the nature of any volunteer fire department, will not be able to respond to a call in a timely manner.”
Seven years later, Moat says the time is now.
He brings monthly reports in front of town leaders showing the increase in calls, training hours, and service time. Moat says this effort has not been enough to sway the town’s drafted budget.
Instead of the funds Moat requested for the NVFD, the town has allocated a 2.5 percent increase, an amount under $200,000.
At one point, it seemed like the town was ready to support a combination fire department in Nolensville. That point in time happened to coincide with Jimmy Alexander’s re-election campaign for Mayor.
During the 2018 race, Mayor Alexander took to his campaign Facebook page to acknowledge Moat’s request to begin the process of looking into the “next phase” of the fire department. In a Nov. 1 post, Alexander said this: “…Chief Moat shared the departments needs to increase its capacity and formally asked BOMA to begin the conversations as to the next phase of the fire department [and] what this will look like for Nolensville in the near future. The board could not agree more and look forward to partnering to solution these needs.”
Now, his budget proposal says otherwise.
Budget aside, the danger of not having enough fire department personnel or resources to respond to a call could be the difference between making or missing a call.
“It’s getting [to be] more and more runs, the number of volunteers are dropping off, the time has dropped off,” Moat said. “It’s going to come to a point where we don’t respond.”
When asked whether he thought there would come a point that the town needed to transition to a combination fire department, Alexander said the town already has one, of sorts.
“Well we have a deal with the county where we provide an extra salary for one person, and the county provides half the salary for that one person, and we’ve had that deal in the works for about three years, I guess,” Alexander said. “So, that is sort of a combination department.”
According to Alexander, there has not been another town-initiated fire services study since the one from 2012. He says he believes the county is working on a study right now.
When asked whether he thought the town’s growth was outpacing its infrastructure and the NVFD’s ability to respond to calls, Alexander said, “Well, the town is growing pretty fast and certainly we understand that and have prepared for it. In some aspects we have a limited amount of commercial activity in town, but it’s growing … We expect to have additional funds from that.”
Alexander said in the future, he expects the town will look at spending more money on roads, its “first class” police department and on the volunteer fire department for “whatever our needs are.”
“Certainly we would like to be able to do a little bit more,” Alexander said. “Whatever we have right now, I can assure you it’s a balanced budget.”
For now, the budget is just a draft. It has several steps to go through before it will be adopted by town leaders.
When asked whether he anticipated additional funds being added to the fire department’s budget, Alexander said he hesitates to speculate.
“It’s all up to the board, and we’ll have our first reading next week,” Alexander said, noting that there would also be a public hearing and a final reading still to come.
Until then, Moat plans to garner as much community support as he can to attend the BOMA meeting on April 4. He’s even talked about giving away free T-shirts to those who attend in support of the NVFD.
“We, right now, are calling on the townspeople to come to the next BOMA meeting and to let the town know…how much they support us, funding it however they have to do it to make sure that we have a paid component to the fire department,” Moat said. “I will tell you this is far from over.”