After months of searching for different ways to pay for it, the fire marshal is finally getting a mobile trailer his office could use to investigate potential cases of arson.
The city council Feb. 26 approved spending almost $80,000 in grant money to buy the trailer.
But, during the vote, one councilman objected, saying he felt misled and that the trailer might end up costing the city in the long run.
“I thought we were spending $80,000 to buy a mobile office for the fire marshal’s office,” Councilman Larry Millican said. “Now, I’m hearing it will cost $200,000 instead of $80,000. It seems underhanded to me. And I question how much use it will get, and what the cost of maintenance will be.”
Officials with the fire marshal’s office first went before council about a year ago to ask permission to apply for a grant that would fund a mobile office to make it easier to investigate whether any fire was intentionally set, as well as for other purposes, Fire Marshal Tommy Cones said.
The department responds to about 30 fires in a given month, ranging in size from dumpster fires to house and grass fires and the city will need a trailer as it continues to grow in size, Cones argues.
City code requires the department to investigate every fire that occurs within the city limits to determine whether it was an arson, Cones said.
That grant request was for almost $200,000, but the city didn’t receive the full funding, Cones said.
An initial request for proposal returned two bids far above the $80,000 the city received in grant funding, but a second bid recently came back much cheaper, albeit without much of the technology the city would eventually need, Cones said.
So, the marshal’s office on Feb. 26 asked the council to approve buying that trailer, as well as for permission to file for an additional $131,000 in homeland security grant funding that could eventually be used to purchase equipment and electronics for the trailer.
“We might need this down the road, but I’m not sure we need it now,” Millican said. “And my concern is that the technology will be useless in five years. So, we’re spending $120,000 because it’s free, and then racking up maintenance costs until we need it. It seems inconsiderate to the taxpayers.”
Cones argued that investigating each fire takes other pieces of the department’s rolling stock out of operation.
But Millican pressed the issue, asking how many actual arsons the office determined in recent years.
Cones said he wasn’t exactly sure, but thought there were about six cases his office referred for criminal charges in 2018.
“It’s not that many, but we are hoping to keep it that way,” Cones said.
An arson command trailer also could be used for other purposes, such as cleaning up hazardous waste spills and in responding to surrounding departments’ requests for service.
Ultimately, despite Millican’s opposition, the council voted 6-1, with Councilman Nick Long absent, to approve the purchase and also applying for the additional grant funding.
“We are paying you all not just to investigate fires, but also to find funding to get the supplies you need,” Mayor Pat Hallisey said to Cones. “We hire you to be our subject matter experts, and I’m going to support your effort. It doesn’t cost the city anything, and I applaud that.”
An arson command trailer would have an interview room, areas for computers and other technology and plenty of space to take specialized equipment and tools to the scene of fires, Cones said.