One-third of the households in Lafayette Parish are in unincorporated areas with no full-time fire departments, and volunteers to battle blazes in the growing number of rural subdivisions are getting harder to come by, a consultant told the City-Parish Council in a presentation Tuesday that prompted calls to beef up service.
“There are big subdivisions. There are big buildings. There is a need for better fire protection out there,” said Thomas Cassisa, a Baton Rouge-based fire protection consultant.
City-parish government brought Cassisa in last year to assess fire protection parishwide.
He told councilmen that the biggest gap is the western portion of the parish, where homeowners rely on volunteer fire departments in the city of Duson and in the unincorporated communities of Milton and Judice.
Those departments, like volunteer departments across the country, are having trouble attracting and keeping members.
“Part of that is because the volunteer participation is dwindling,” Cassisa said. “Most families have two working parents. It’s hard for people to volunteer like they used to, and it’s expensive.”
The situation in western Lafayette Parish has reached a critical stage, Councilman Jay Castille said.
“When the call comes, there isn’t anybody there,” he said. “We need to address that quick.”
Lafayette Fire Chief Robert Benoit said fire departments from neighboring municipalities have been sending more trucks to the western portions of the parish to ensure good coverage.
But he characterized that as a Band-Aid approach and said more-robust departments are needed there.
“Somebody’s going to get hurt. It’s just not enough people to respond,” Cassisa said.
While western Lafayette Parish has urgent needs, Cassisa said, the parish as a whole outside of the city of Lafayette needs more fire stations, better management of fire protection services, better training, more paid staff and incentives to attract and keep volunteers.
The city of Lafayette has the only full-time firefighting force in the parish.
Broussard, Youngsville, Scott and Carencro use a combination of paid and volunteer firefighters.
Cassisa recommended adding more paid firefighter positions and offering financial incentives to volunteers, such as stipends to attend training and to cover expenses related to their service.
“Currently the volunteers who operate in the parish are saving the parish millions of dollars in payroll,” he said.
Cassisa also recommended seven more fire stations for the unincorporated areas of the parish, which now have only three.
Not addressing those issues soon could impact the fire rating used by insurance companies to set premiums, he said.
The unincorporated areas of the parish have a fire insurance rating of 5, compared with a 2 for the city of Lafayette, a 3 for Scott and a 4 for Broussard, Carencro, Youngsville and Duson.
Fire ratings can range from a 1, the highest score, to a low of 10.
Benoit, Lafayette’s fire chief, estimated rural residents are paying 20 percent more for homeowner’s insurance than city of Lafayette residents because of the rating disparity.
Cassisa said the rating for unincorporated areas of the parish almost slipped down to a 6 after the most recent ratings evaluation in 2013, mainly because there simply are not enough active firefighters.
“Maintaining that 5 is going to be very difficult next time around,” he said.
Councilmen Kevin Naquin, who represents portions of western Lafayette Parish, said he hopes to soon meet with City-Parish President Joey Durel’s administration in an effort to ferret out any funds available for rural fire protection.
“Time is of the essence, and this is something that I don’t want to postpone,” Naquin said.
That task could be difficult because tax revenue generated in rural areas is not keeping pace with a wide range of needs, from fire protection and water service to roads, bridges and drainage.
Follow Richard Burgess on Twitter, @rbb100.