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Mt. Juliet revisits volunteer effort for fire-fighting

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WEMA is unique in that it includes all emergency services under one director, unlike other counties where fire, police and ambulance directors are all different people, according to former Director David Hale.

“It was 1975, I went to pick up that truck and backed it into the fire hall for the first time,” Hale recalled.

So from that time on the county provided fire protection for Mt Juliet, said former Director Bedford Johnson.

But during the years the city has grown to more than 25,000 people as shown by the recent special census.

So while Mt. Juliet officials say they are still satisfied with the arrangement they have for fire protection with the county, efforts are underway to create a new Mt. Juliet volunteer fire department..

Shawn Donovan is one of about 30 Mt. Juliet residents who are interested in forming the new volunteer fire department.

He's worried about Mt. Juliet’s low level of fire protection with only four full time firefighters and one pumper truck based in a building behind City Hall. And these paid firefighters are county employees working for WEMA.

Fire coverage in Mt Juliet has changed little since the original agreement. The city still leases the fire hall to the county for $1 a year, but until this current attempt to organize a volunteer squad the city has not provided any firefighters.

While Mt Juliet city commissioners say the arrangement with WEMA works well, it upsets taxpayers and government officials in Lebanon.

Lebanon City Council members say they believe Lebanon taxes have been unfairly used to subsidize fire protection in Mt. Juliet.

And WEMA often has to turn to Lebanon or Nashville for help fighting fires in the Mt. Juliet area.

Lebanon, with a similar population, has 39 paid firefighters, three pumper trucks, two ladder trucks and a rescue truck, as well as plans to buy a Quint, which is a specialized ladder/pumper combination.

The Lebanon Fire Department has an annual budget of about $3 million. But recently, Lebanon officials have told the county that due to skyrocketing diesel fuel prices soon it won’t have funding to travel out of the city with no reimbursement.

In fact, most towns as big as Mt Juliet, with more than 25,000 in population now, do have their own paid fire department.

According to National Fire Protection Association statistics, cities with populations under 25,000 tend to lean more heavily on volunteers than on full-time firefighters. But in cities with populations between 25,000 and 50,000, paid firefighters typically outnumber volunteers almost two to one.

The new volunteer force could resolve some short-term issues with the town's fire protection, said John Jewell, director WEMA.

Mt. Juliet does not have a city property tax, and Mt. Juliet officials have said one would be necessary to operate a full time fire department

Safety is a major concern, as well, for local people, who say they leave for work in the morning hoping their homes will be safe. But they also say they know that in the event of a fire, there may not be enough equipment and firefighters to put the fire out in time.

A 2006 study prepared by two government advisory groups pointed out significant gaps in the fire coverage in parts of Mt. Juliet.

The study recommended additional firefighters, new stations and more equipment. Jewell agreed that Mt Juliet could probably use a fire department of similar size to other cities.

Meanwhile, Mt. Juliet officials hope during its recruitment effort to create a company of 10 to 15 volunteer firefighters to supplement the county staff, which will still give the city less firefighters than most cities its size, or some smaller ones.

Watertown, in eastern Wilson County with a population of only 1,358, has a volunteer fire department with 20 volunteers, three pumper trucks and a rescue truck.

While Jewell said whether to establish a new fire department was not his decision, he did note that Mt. Juliet is a growing city the size of Lebanon, Gallatin and Smyrna, all of which have city fire departments.

He also added a solid volunteer department could feed well-trained personnel into a paid Mt. Juliet department if it was established in the future.

Some would-be volunteers, including Donovan, a firefighter in Williamson County, hope the volunteer effort leads to a full-time department.

"You have to start small and work your way up to that," said Donovan, who has lived near the Providence development a little more than two years.

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