Sales tax helping improve fire department, chief says

A sales tax increase approved by Pine Bluff voters in 2011 has meant a lot of good things for the city’s Fire and Emergency Services Department, according to Chief Shauwn Howell.

Speaking to the Rotary Club of Pine Bluff on Tuesday, Howell said the five-eighths-cent tax increase has allowed the department to break ground on one new fire station and remodel two others.

Of the seven stations used by the department, Howell said the ages range from 27 to 47 years, and they were built before the workforce changed and women became firefighters.

Asked by a member of the club how many females the department currently has working, Howell said four and “I anticipate more in the coming years.”

At Station 2, on West Pullen Street, and Station 6, on Moreland Street just off Dollarway Road, what was one large shower and bathroom in each has been divided into two separate facilities, he said. In addition, both stations had metal roofs replaced, and other work done, including the installation of exhaust fans in the engine bay area.

“Firefighters spend a lot of time in the bays working on equipment or rolling hoses and it can get really hot in there so the fans will be a big help,” Howell said.

He said those projects are ongoing, and they may be completed next month.

At 32nd Avenue and Beech Street, a new station will be constructed to replace the current Station 3, which is located at 30th Avenue and Ash Street and was built in 1956.

Howell said the new station will have three bays for equipment, compared with one at the current station, and will feature a driveway at the back of the station, allowing trucks to go in the back way, rather than firefighters having to back trucks in as they do now.

All seven stations now have gas-operated generators in the event that electrical power is lost because of a storm, Howell said, explaining that before the generators were installed, “if we lost electricity, our radios wouldn’t work and the phones wouldn’t work.”

Howell said the emergency communications center (MECA) also has emergency generators so communications can continue, even with a power outage.

When the new station is completed, the current station at 30th Avenue and Ash Street will be shut down, Howell said.

In addition to the new station and renovations at others, Howell said proceeds from the sales tax have allowed the department to buy three new firetrucks, that are all in service now, and the average age of the department’s trucks is four and-a-half years.

“Five of our seven front-line trucks were bought in 2010 or later,” Howell said.

He said the department averages responding to about 4,000 calls per year, with emergency medical calls accounting for more than half of them.

“We don’t transport, but we can stabilize somebody until an ambulance gets there,” Howell said.