Smoke Signals

Smoke Signals

A report calls for a tax-funded Knox County fire department. County officials want to explore their options.

by jesse fox mayshark • march 1, 2019


Most but not all of Knox county is within a 10-minute drive of a fire station. (Source: County technical assistance service.)

Knox County should form its own fire department to serve all of the areas outside the city of Knoxville, and should create a fire tax district to pay for it -- those are the concluding recommendations of a report given to County Commission this week by a consultant.

Outside the city, a patchwork of for-profit, nonprofit and all-volunteer fire departments.

“A change is needed from the subscription, user fees, and donation-based funding models currently administered by the fire departments, to a fire tax district where everyone contributes,” says the report, which was presented at Commission’s meeting Monday by Kevin Lauer of the County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS). “This will reduce the amount of money that the current subscribers pay and increase the level of protection for everyone.”

Commissioner Brad Anders, who introduced Lauer’s presentation, said CTAS undertook the study of county fire and rescue services at Commission’s request. CTAS, which is part of the University of Tennessee’s Institute for Public Service, works with counties across Tennessee.

“There’s no political look, there’s no cost look, they just call balls and strikes for us,” Anders said.

Lauer seconded that. “We try to look at this very impartially,” he said. “We don’t have a stake in the outcome of this and just try to look at the facts.”

The facts the report lays out tell a story of a growing county with a patchwork of for-profit, nonprofit and volunteer fire agencies, where people who choose to subscribe or donate are carrying the burden of those who don’t. (You can read the full report here.)

City of Knoxville residents and businesses are served by the Knoxville Fire Department, funded by city taxes. CTAS examined fire and rescue service in the areas outside the city, which are served by three fire agencies:

  • Rural Metro Fire -- Now owned by private ambulance goliath American Medical Response (AMR), Rural Metro operates 17 fire stations in Knox County and serves areas with an estimated 223,000 residents. It is a for-profit company funded by subscription fees. Rural Metro serves the Town of Farragut through a contract separate from the company’s contract with Knox County.
  • Karns Fire Department -- This nonprofit agency serves about 40,000 residents in the Northwest Knox communities of Karns, Ball Camp, Hardin Valley and Solway. It began as an all-volunteer operation, but growth and demand in the area led to its establishment as a subscription-supported department that currently employs 19 full-time firefighters. It has two primary stations and two reserve stations.
  • Seymour Volunteer Fire Department -- An all-volunteer department except for a paid chief, SVFD has 70 firefighters and six stations that serve about 32,000 people in Blount, Knox and Sevier counties. (The CTAS report is full of interesting details, like this one about SVFD’s founding in 1971: “In the first year, 12 firefighters responded to 24 calls for service and their sole engine was stored outside in a vacant lot at the corner of Chapman Highway and Old Sevierville Pike.”)

The report also looked at the Knoxville Volunteer Emergency Rescue Squad, which provides services like water rescues and extrications of people from vehicles or rubble.

Among the findings: Just over half (51.46 percent) of buildings outside the city are within a five-minute drive for fire responders, and almost all (97.47 percent) are within a 10-minute drive.

Subscription or participation vary by area, according to the report. In Rural Metro districts, residential subscription rates range from 23.6 percent to 56.1 percent, and commercial from 19.5 percent to 61.4 percent.

Whether they subscribe or not, all property owners in an area share the same Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating of their community’s fire safety. ISO, an independent analytics company, assigns fire safety ratings on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the top score. Variables include the local emergency communications service, fire department staffing and equipment, and water supply.

Insurance companies use ISO ratings as part of their formula for property insurance rates. In general, a lower ISO rating will produce a lower insurance rate. According to the report, areas served by Rural Metro currently have an ISO rating of 3, compared to 4 for Karns and 5 for Seymour. The City of Knoxville has a rating of 2.

"We’ve got to do something about this as a Commission. It’s going to take some political courage, but we’ve got to do it.” – Knox County Commissioner Brad Anders

The CTAS report says that countywide (outside the city), there are about 50 fire and rescue personnel on duty daily. That is the highest it’s ever been, but at one responder per 5,500 residents it is well under the regional norm. The report says the ratio is 7.59 per 5,500 in southern U.S. counties with populations of 250,000 or greater.

In conclusion, the report says, “We recommend that Knox County begin a much greater level of involvement with the addition of infrastructure, and assuming control of the fire and rescue services.”

To pay for those services, whether through contracts with existing agencies or the creation of an independent agency, it recommends establishing some form of fire-district tax charged to all property owners.

Other Options

After the presentation, commissioners did not commit to any course of action but promised further discussion of the issue.

“After the budget’s approved and we get into the summer, we’re going to continue that conversation,” Anders promised. He added, “We’ve got to do something about this as a Commission. It’s going to take some political courage, but we’ve got to do it.”

In a statement Thursday, Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs was cautious about the report’s recommendations. “Rural Metro is doing a very good job for Knox County,” Jacobs said. “Although there are always things that we can improve, I don’t believe that a wholesale change, including fire tax districts, is an appropriate solution at this point.”

Instead, he said the county should look at ways to increase Rural Metro’s subscribership. Rural Metro Fire Chief Jerry Harnish agreed. He said there are several steps short of the full-scale county fire service envisioned by the report.

“It’s a factual report,” Harnish said Thursday of the CTAS document. “I think it hits a lot of the high points, I just think it needs more context and more options.”

Both Jacobs and Harnish mentioned better state-level enforcement of insurance laws to make sure that people who claim to have fire protection on their home insurance forms actually do have the service. Harnish said the rule is not well enforced now, making it easy for people to fake their way to better insurance rates.

He also said the county could pass an ordinance explicitly granting fire departments the power to bill when they respond to a call at a property that has not been subscribed. Currently, the departments rely on what Harnish called “an obscure legal doctrine” known as quantum meruit, which is essentially a common-law claim. The mechanics of it are tricky enough that Harnish said Rural Metro sometimes doesn’t even bill for services because it’s not worth the trouble.

“They could pass an ordinance that says if the fire department shows up, you’re going to have to pay fees,” Harnish said of Commission.

In any case, nothing is likely to happen soon. As Commission Chair Hugh Nystrom noted Thursday, the county is already facing two major issues -- a pending rewrite of its Growth Policy Plan and jail overcrowding -- and is embarking on its annual budget process.

Nystrom said Commission would probably come back to the CTAS report later in the year, and will include all stakeholders in any conversations.

Speaking for Rural Metro, Harnish said, “We do want to be involved in discussions as we go forward.”