After a heated debate filled with finger pointing, worries about public safety and confusion about operations, the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council on Wednesday deferred signing off on the land for a new fire station on Burbank Drive.
The debate centered on claims from the fire union’s leader, Shane Spillman, who said the tradeoff for the new station was taking one of the Fire Department’s two specialized rescue trucks offline. Fire Chief Ed Smith said the rescue truck would still be available and have its equipment, but it would no longer be manned at all times.
The debate turned into a showdown between Spillman and Smith. The two of them and the Metro Council members focused on the rescue truck, rather than the new station that the council was being asked to approve.
Spillman insisted that the second rescue truck was a necessity at all times and pointed to an example from a recent car wreck where both trucks were needed. Smith said he would never put citizens’ safety in jeopardy, adding that the new equipment and other trucks would help cover more of the parish.
“In my humble opinion of 42 years of fire service, I’m protecting this city, and I’m protecting it well,” Smith said as he delivered an impassioned speech to the Metro Council.
Smith also said getting the new station is critical for the Baton Rouge Fire Department to maintain its top rating. The Baton Rouge Fire Department currently boasts the highest rating in service that a fire department can attain, which lowers insurance values for homeowners who live within the department’s boundaries.
Many Metro Council members said they wanted to acquire the land and build the new station, but they also wanted to keep the rescue truck manned at all times. They questioned if the Fire Department had the money for both, and city-parish Finance Director Marsha Hanlon said the budget for next year has not been finished.
Smith said it is expected to cost the department an extra $1 million a year to have the new station and keep the second rescue truck manned.
Councilman Trae Welch said the city-parish needs to make funding available for the rescue truck, rather than forcing the Fire Department to choose between two needs.
“This isn’t a slight on the Fire Department, by a long shot,” said Metro Councilman Trae Welch. “... More tools in the Fire Department can only help the Fire Department. Nobody’s talking about taking anything away; what we’re talking about is adding to.”
Councilman John Delgado also favored finding a way to keep the rescue truck up and running rather than pulling it offline to get the new station.
“There are other mechanisms to provide staffing for Station 20 rather than cutting this vital rescue truck from our streets,” Delgado said.
Mayor Pro Tem Chandler Loupe motioned to defer the item for 30 days after a line of questioning where he received few clear-cut answers about the impact of taking the second truck offline. The council unanimously agreed to defer the agenda item.