Fire Fight: Volunteer department slammed over long response times

Critics of Baker County system say they'll pay if it means better fire service

MACCLENNY, Fla. – Baker County's volunteer fire department is receiving criticism from some residents who say the department has been too slow to respond to calls.

The county has one full-time paid fire chief who leaves after 5 p.m., meaning that after 5 p.m., no one is on duty. Volunteers staff the eight fire stations.

“They've got to leave their home and come to the fire department, then travel to where the fire is,” said Elaine McKenzie, whose Margaretta home burned down in 2004.

McKenzie is among residents critical of Baker County's volunteer system. Those critics said they would be willing to pay more in taxes if it meant better fire service.

McKenzie said she believes more paid firefighters would prevent disasters like what happened to her home. She had lived there for 48 years before the house burned down after it took county firefighters 30 minutes to arrive when a fire broke out.

“It was emotional,” McKenzie said. “I lost a lot of precious, valuable things that I really needed.”
The city of Macclenny has its own paid professional fire department, which can help the volunteer firefighters -- but only if the county calls for help.

McKenzie, a cook at Fraser's Corner Café, which sits across the street from one of the county fire stations, said improving fire service would likely save homeowners money in the long run.

“Sometimes, it's a little bit more expensive to get homeowners insurance out there because we don't have fire hydrants,” McKenzie said.

A citizen’s group came up with an idea for hiring two full-time firefighters and paying their salaries with grant money. That group will present its idea to the county commission next month. 

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