Worries mount about Parkwood fire department

Jan. 02, 2014 @ 06:16 PM

County officials’ worries about the health of the Parkwood Volunteer Fire Department extend to its handling of firefighting, and prompted a move just before the holidays to have the city Fire Department back it up on all fire calls.

City Fire Chief Dan Curia and other officials confirmed the decision on Thursday, with Curia saying it actually went into effect about a week and a half before Christmas.

It means if there’s a house fire in the Parkwood district, the city will send “a standard city response” to it, Curia said. That translates into about 24 to 25 firefighters and the trucks of five engine and ladder companies, plus command and support equipment.

The city stepped in at the county’s behest. The county contracts with Parkwood for fire and EMS coverage in the rural portion of south and southwest Durham.

County officials have questioned whether Parkwood is having cash-flow problems, and on Monday escalated matters on that front by formally asking for the appointment of an independent trustee to manage its finances.

That’s something allowed by the county’s contract with Parkwood should the department’s books prove “un-auditable,” or if an audit finds evidence of “reckless or willful financial mismanagement.”

The department’s 2011-12 audit found that Parkwood officials weren’t holding money for the Firefighters Relief Fund in a separate account as required by law. County officials suspect the department was using the reserve to cover cash-flow shortages.

But the contract doesn’t give the county unilateral rights to impose a trustee on the department. Parkwood’s board has to consent. The two sides are meeting Tuesday to discuss the situation.

Deputy County Manager Lee Worsley, the county’s point man on the issue, said he urged calling in a trustee because Parkwood hasn’t offered a “corrective action plan” on the financial front.

The two organizations have been discussing the audit results since August.

“I’d certainly hope the appointment of a trustee would be a path for the fire department to improve,” Worsley said. “My expectation is that the board would look favorably on it in order to improve their own financial stance.”

A Parkwood spokesman, board member Sam Goldman, stopped short of signaling Thursday whether or not he and his colleagues will go along. But he said he doesn’t see the county’s queries as “a negative.”

“If you are in the leadership of Durham County, you first of all would be remiss in not giving real thought to how they meet the needs of our citizens in the long term and how they ensure stability within the relationships [with volunteer fire departments] they continue to use,” Goldman said.

He added the department’s cash flow is inherently tight, given the flow of county firefighting and EMS subsidies.

“Although your revenue streams are tax-based and contract-based and are ‘more guaranteed,’ they’re not designed to have a surplus,” Goldman said. “If you are not extremely diligent about managing that, it’s easy to go through even a very short amount of time where revenues streams don’t match up.”

The county’s worries about fire operations in the Parkwood district began in September, after Curia sent Parkwood’s chief, William Colley, a letter complaining about how it handled a house fire on Crystal Oaks Court in a rural portion of southwest Durham.

Worsley told Parkwood officials the county had learned afterwards of “at least four other incidents where Parkwood inadequately responded to calls.”

The September incident Curia wrote about occurred about 1.5 miles from a Parkwood substation off Farrington Road. The substation houses a pumper and a medic unit, but Parkwood didn’t send the pumper to Crystal Oaks Road.

Instead, a unit came from department headquarters on Seaton Road in its namesake Parkwood neighborhood, about 7.2 miles away.

Three city units dispatched under mutual aid beat it there and were already fighting the fire when the Parkwood truck arrived, Curia said in his letter.

Moreover, Curia said he wasn’t happy with how Parkwood’s commanders managed the scene.

He arrived when the Parkwood truck did and saw Durham firefighters taking “liberties” with safety rules that require a rescue crew to stand by when firefighters are working inside a burning building.

Curia said a Parkwood battalion chief took “no action” to correct the problem, and that Colley only intervened when he as Durham chief asked him to.

Beyond that, “there was a distinct lack of command presence at the scene and there appeared to be only a rudimentary grasp of tactics at the command level,” Curia said in a letter copied to Worsley and the county’s emergency management director.

Curia also questioned whether Parkwood habitually sends “too few units” to a call, counting on follow-up dispatching or mutual aid from the city to fill in any gaps.

Firefighting doctrine supports a massive initial response, the better to knock down a fire quickly before it can get out of hand.

State inspectors visited the Farrington Road substation recently and also had questions about its capabilities. They asked for “an improvement program” to preserve the district’s insurance rating, which drives premiums for homeowners insurance.

Worsley said the city officials in providing backup coverage have been “very gracious” and “fantastic to work with.”

So far, the city’s help has come free of charge.

But Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson told Worsley last month it has a “significant operational and financial cost to the city,” and that if the county needs it to continue, the two governments should set a Jan. 31 deadline for working out an deal to govern operations.

“We didn’t want to leave it open-ended now and forever without some specific agreement as to how we were going to get paid for it,” City Manager Tom Bonfield said, explaining the request.