When Beth Winton’s son lay on the pool deck turning blue two years ago, Winton would have loved to receive help from a city of Columbia fire station three miles away.
But Thornbrook, her subdivision, receives service from Boone County Fire Protection District. At the time, the closest county station was 5.3 miles away. It took about 11 minutes for a truck to arrive, and a neighbor saved Winton’s 4½ -year-old child.
The subdivision is one of several annexed areas within city limits that do not receive city fire services.
Now, a new Boone County station is 0.63 miles away from the subdivision on Scott Boulevard, but many Thornbrook residents still aren’t satisfied.
The subdivision’s Neighborhood Association met with City Manager Ray Beck, Boone County Fire Chief Steve Paulsell, Fifth Ward City Councilman John John and Columbia Fire Chief Bill Markgraf to discuss the issue Monday night.
“We expect the same service living out here,” Thornbrook resident Scott Bell said to Markgraf. “My address says city of Columbia, just like yours does. I live in the city, and you can’t tell me different.”
Thornbrook residents pay for fire services from Boone County and also pay the same city taxes as other city residents.
Because of an agreement between the city and county, the county has control over fire services in the area regardless of annexation, John said. The agreement began in 1994, and the city and county are set to re-examine it in 2009, he said.
Residents said they were concerned because the Boone County stations are staffed by volunteers, whereas city station employees are paid. Also, Paulsell said the station at Scott Boulevard and Vawter School Road would be unstaffed 2 percent to 5 percent of the time.
During those times, Paulsell said, calls from Thornbrook would go to the nearest county station on South Providence, 5.3 miles away.
Markgraf said two city stations are closer. Several residents said the closer city stations should pick up calls from Thornbrook when Station 14, the closest station, is empty. Although arguments were heated and sometimes angry, John said he would work to make that possible.
“I’d like to find a way to improve service here without harming service elsewhere,” John said. “I like the idea that the second call goes to the second-closest station. We need to figure out how to do that in such a way that it’s efficient and effective.”
Although the city is interested in building stations in the future, Markgraf said there are three city areas that are more underserved than Thornbrook. Typically, fewer than 60 calls come in from that area each year.
The city and county fire chiefs also stressed that volunteer firefighters are well-trained and that many work as city firefighters as well. The chiefs also said the city and county departments work together on an as-needed basis.
Thornbrook resident Patty Purves said she thinks the county is trying to protect the tax income it receives from city residents.
“I think this is more political than it is about public safety or giving us services,” Purves said. “I don’t have faith that they’ll come up with a good solution. I hope I’m disappointed.”