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OC Board of County Commissioners hold joint meeting with fire departments

The Chapel Hill Fire Department on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd is pictured on Oct. 10, 2022.

The Orange County Board of County Commissioners held a joint meeting Tuesday with the Police Chiefs' Association of Orange County Police Academy and multiple county fire departments to give updates on special operations, equipment delays and staff shortages.

Keith Hayes, Eno Fire Department chief and Fire Chiefs’ Association president, praised how emergency teams responded to Tropical Storm Ian. 

“We never held a call or failed to respond when dispatched,” Hayes said.

Jeff Cabe, fire chief of the Orange Rural Fire Department, said a newer special operations team consists of members from every fire department in Orange County.  The team comes together to respond to trench rescue calls, he said, which can involve digging a trapped worker out of a collapsed ditch.

“Fortunately, we’ve not responded to a single trench response call, but our risk assessment shows that we will,"  Cabe said. "And, when we do, it’s gonna take a lot of people."

Another risk within the county is large animal rescue, Cabe said, since the county has a large number of big horse farms.Next year, the team plans to hold separate training sessions on large animal rescue and trench rescue, he said.

Cabe added that these training sessions and special operations team are a collaborative effort between all the fire departments included in the meeting. 

“By having them all respond, having us all trained together, it just provides a better service to our citizens,” Cabe said. 

Kirby Saunders, emergency services director of Orange County, said the county is proud of the work being done by the fire departments.  

“It’s about the people who will put their lives in jeopardy to try to save the animal or save someone that’s trapped in a trench,” he said. 

Hayes said the unexpected rise in costs of fuel and supplies, as well as supply chain issues, have led to delays in receiving trucks and equipment.

Vendors have indicated delays of over a year for ambulances the county needs, Saunders said.

"We're really concerned over the next 12 months or so that our fleet may age faster than it can be replaced," he said. 

Saunders added that the county is seeing the effects of inflation while ordering medical supplies. He said it has spent almost 45 percent of its yearly budget on medical supplies within the first quarter.

Hayes said departments in Orange County are struggling to keep staff and have been losing them to departments that can afford to pay more. 

Orange and Durham counties have also been offering classes within schools to help train students in different fields of firefighting, emergency response, law enforcement and 911 communications. 

Hayes said these programs has attracted the attention of younger volunteers. He added that they have seen an increase in diversity across paid and volunteer staff, although retention still remains an issue. 

Sarah Pickhardt, emergency management division chief of Orange County, gave a brief presentation on emergency preparedness. According to Pickhardt, emergency management is the community approach to preparing, responding, mitigating and recovering from natural, technological and human-caused hazards.

The emergency management division partnered with sustainability officers and received a report saying there has been an increase in temperature viability, as well as more precipitation and more drought, Pickhardt said. 

“We really do have a number of different hazards within our community,” Pickhardt said. 

Saunders thanked all of the fire chiefs and emergency responders at the meeting, calling them the "real heroes."

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