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The Washington County Board of County Commissioners approved having fire departments in Greenhead, Orange Hill, and Five Points come under the county’s purview on Nov. 14.

“It’s going to help with ISO ratings,” County Fire Coordinator Justin Leach said. “Technically, with ISO, for any structure fire within a certain district, you’ve got to have at least four certified people on the scene. … They can come from anywhere in the county, as long as they’re in the same department.” 

Every few years, fire departments across the country are inspected and rated by the Insurance Services Office (ISO), a national insurance risk assessor. The agency grades departments on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the best. A better ISO rating can mean lower insurance premiums for residents.

All the departments would keep their current chiefs, besides Greenhead. 

“They’ll follow more of the structure that Washington County Fire Department does,” Leach said. “They’ll all work more together. They’ll train the same things. It’s going to be a more combined effort. I think we’ll get a lot more out of the departments by them being together.” 

Commissioner Tray Hawkins said he was “all for” having the departments under the county if doing so “benefits them and their service.”

Hawkins said he got a call beforehand from Orange Hill, who were reportedly “very excited” about the decision due to enhancing the feel of “brotherhood” among firefighters. 

The vote was 4-1, with Commissioner Wesley Griffin voting no since he wanted more information after concerns were raised by retired Panama City firefighter, Country Oaks Fire Chief, and Vernon resident Troy Cunningham.

“If your departments come together as one, the chiefs are no longer their individual chiefs. You have one chief that is over all your departments,” Cunningham said, citing information from an ISO class in Niceville. “According to your ISO rating, if you combine your departments, you have to have four off of the first truck to a fire structure. Four. Not two from this department, not two from this station. Four out of the first-run truck out of that district.”

Combining the groups together will not help the community, said Cunningham, who is also trying to restart a fire department in Caryville after reportedly being approached about doing so by residents. 

“I’m not saying it’s a bad idea but I think we need to look further into it to make sure we’re not causing more problems to our citizens by raising our ISO rates by doing this,” he said. “If you drive outside a five-mile radius, your ISO rating goes up for a fire department.”

Cunningham said he did not hear a multi-year plan for the county and that the west side of the county was not receiving attention. 

“We need to look at everything, not just one corridor,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham’s remarks drew criticism from other fire officials and dispute about the claims made. 

“The question is what is the harm of them being underneath the county? How is it going to affect the county in a negative way?” Leach said. “It absolutely will not, in any shape or form, affect the county in a negative way. It’s only going to make the county better.”

“For the past several months, there’s certain people that want to get up here and say what they got to say and get half the stories and they run off and go to the newspapers,” Leach said. “I’m telling you now, I’m sick of it. I don’t understand.”

Leach said he presented a five-year plan to the commission.