ST. FRANCISVILLE — Voters in the unincorporated areas of West Feliciana Parish have the opportunity Saturday to decide on a funding mechanism for additional full-time firefighters in the parish.

Fire Protection District 1, which includes all of the parish except for St. Francisville, is asking voters to approve a new, 4-mill property tax for 20 years to hire 24 firefighters to decrease the response time to fires and emergency medical calls.

Interim Fire Chief Walter Oliveaux said the fire district board's plan is to assign two firefighters each at the fire stations in Hardwood, The Bluffs, Weyanoke and Wakefield in 24-hour shifts each day.

"The goal is to cut everyone's response time in half," Oliveaux said.

The firefighters will be Civil Service employees, as required by law, and the tax proceeds, estimated at a little more than $1 million annually, also will be used to train and equip the new personnel as required by the state property insurance agency.

Some of the initial revenue will be used to add sleeping quarters to two stations that now lack them, Oliveaux said.

The full-time firefighters in the Weyanoke, Wakefield and The Bluffs also will be positioned to cut response times to emergencies in the Spillman, Tunica and Lake Rosemound communities and other remote areas.

The tax would not be levied in St. Francisville, which has its own fire department. The fire protection district has mutual aid agreements with the town and the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

The town will send its trucks up to 5 miles outside of the town to assist Fire District 1 firefighters, and the penitentiary fire brigade is invaluable in assisting the district outside the prison grounds, Oliveaux said.

The district's current budget allowed Oliveaux to contract with firefighters from other departments for part-time duty, and if voters approve the tax, the district plans to use three contract firefighters to fill in for regular employees who are sick or on vacation.

Although volunteer firefighters are key to the district's successful operations, recruiting volunteers has become harder in recent years, across the country, Oliveaux said.

Oliveaux said he has spoken to parish residents who are hesitant to support a new tax, but he said he tells them that a fire protection tax is one for which taxpayers can see an immediate benefit in the form of lower fire insurance premiums.

The fire district's territory is rated Class 4 by the Property Insurance Association of Louisiana, a rating that results in much lower premiums than those paid by rural residents in other parishes, Oliveaux said.