Cherokee County Fire & Emergency Services (CCFES) has come a long way in the past 25 years, from a mostly volunteer service to the first-class, fully professional department it is today. That journey isn’t over, but CCFES reached a new high March 1, when it joined the elite ranks of internationally accredited fire agencies. That’s the gold standard for fire departments, with only 14 in Georgia having earned that recognition.
We all owe congratulations and thanks to the fire team, led by current Chief Eddie Robinson, and former Chiefs Tim Prather and Raymond Gunnin.
CCFES grew out of the former Little River Fire District. Outside that small area in south Cherokee, volunteers provided the only fire protection in unincorporated Cherokee County through 1998. By then, the county’s population had reached about 130,000, and it was time for a change. That year, voters approved a countywide fire tax, and the journey began.
The first step was to put one paid firefighter in each of the then-volunteer fire stations at all times. All firefighters were medically trained to at least the emergency medical technician level. The firefighter on duty would drive the fire engine to the scene of any emergency, and volunteers would meet him or her there. That process worked pretty well at night and on weekends, when volunteers were available, but not as well during weekdays.
As the county’s tax digest and revenues grew, the paid staff gradually was expanded to two firefighters per shift on each engine, and more and better equipment was added. County ambulance service was brought into CCFES in 2003. Some of the smallest and oldest stations were replaced with modern structures, and more were added to fill gaps in coverage. The volunteer units began to fade away and eventually disbanded.
The county’s Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating initially was set at 5 on a scale of 1 (best) to 10 (no fire coverage). A first-class fire training center was added in 2013, helping to improve the ISO rating to 3. Medical coverage continued to improve, with advanced life support paramedics and equipment on all ambulances and most fire trucks. (Fire trucks actually respond to far more medical calls than fire calls.) The ISO rating further improved to 2 in 2018. That’s exceptionally good for a large, and still fairly rural, county.
The goal for the build-out is to staff 24 modern fire stations with at least three firefighters per engine (four on the bigger ladder trucks), with paramedics on all trucks, plus enough reserve personnel to maintain those staffing levels during normal absences. Chief Robinson reported recently the department needs just 35 more firefighters, including the staffing of one more station, to reach those goals, and he hopes to achieve that within the next two years. It will take a few more years to replace all the old station buildings, but the ones still in use are functionally adequate.
It’s fitting CCFES should receive international accreditation when on the cusp of achieving its 25-year professional build-out process. It not only recognizes the excellence the department has achieved; it provides a demanding roadmap to further excellence as a condition of maintaining the accreditation.
– Harry Johnston is chairman of the Cherokee County Board of Commissioners. He’s a retired CPA and accounting manager, and a former district commissioner. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.