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MJ fire station well under way

Following completion of its latest station on the north end of town, the Fire Department of Mt. Juliet will be able to cut down response times for emergencies across the city. On Tuesday, the department head said that construction is expected to wrap up by early summer.

“If everything stays static the way it is, we should be able push that truck in and start answering service calls ... by late May or early June,” said Fire Department of Mt. Juliet Chief Jamie Luffman.

The construction represents the culmination of nearly a decade’s worth work. Until now, service from the city relied on the Belinda Parkway station and the central building that the department shared with the county.

“We’ve been looking for eight years to build a station in the north,” said Luffman. “If everybody has a fire station in their service district, then the response times are equal, and the service level is equal.

“It’s basic physics. Farther equals longer. The farther you are away, the longer the timing. The service level for the north district was the same as anywhere else, but response times were longer.”

Where it is, and what is it going to look like?

The station will take up the space between North Greenhill Road and Old North Greenhill Road, across from Green Hill High School. Plans for the station’s design actually include similar aesthetic choices to the neighboring school.

“One of the things I asked the architect to do is to complement Green Hill High School,” Luffman said. “So, there are going to be windows rounded at the top. We won’t have columns, but there will be vertical design pieces on our station that will complement the columns.”

The same construction company is responsible for both projects, so a lot of the construction workers at the fire station also helped at the school, as Mt. Juliet Public Information Officer Justin Beasley pointed out.

“If you want the same picture, get the same artist,” laughed Luffman.

Luffman said that he’s been meeting with the architect and the builder once a month for progress reports.

“Before now, it’s been crossing Ts and dotting Is. With the progress they’ve made (so far), each meeting will be much more meaningful,” Luffman said.

The progress has happened on a quick timetable, but Luffman and Beasley will both be happy to see ground-level plumbing completed so that concrete can be poured. After that, rain won’t be able to hamper construction.

“I was out here two weeks ago, and it was really just kind of surface level,’’ Beasley said. “Now, you’re seeing some depth to it. You can really get a picture of what it looks like now.”

Plans for the station include 10,000 square feet of floor space with three operational bays for vehicles. Calls will be answered coming on to North Green Hill Road and will return on Old North Green Hill Road.

The command center being built inside the station will be able to withstand an F3 tornado. Keeping the center open means being able to get emergency vehicles out to administer aid, a critical need during disasters such as the recent tornado.

“They are the ones who get the calls and get everyone else to work at the right place at the right time in an orderly fashion,” said Beasley.

Some elements of the process have been disrupted by supply-chain issues, leading to increased costs as well. Luffman estimated that by the time it’s all wrapped up, it will cost the city approximately $4.5 million. Opening the station will also require additional hires. For that, the chief said that the department will need between nine and 12 additional firefighters.

There will be a room consisting of 12 sleeping bunks eventually, but Luffman explained that it won’t start out that way.

“We’ll probably have four or five at the start,” Luffman said. “It will have an engine and a ladder. Some of our utility vehicles will be here.”

Since station 3 behind city hall is an outdated building, Luffman intends to give department members assigned there the first shot at the new digs.

“Some will probably take me up on that offer,” said Luffman as he laughed.

The chief admits that he will be relieved when the project is completed, not just because it will be done, but because of the impact that it will have on emergency response throughout the city.

He’s also really looking forward to one other benefit.

“I might actually sleep some that night,” Luffman said.

Black History Committee reflects on year, looks to future

The Wilson County Black History Committee enters 2022 with a thankful posture after what it deems as a successful year. It’s project to restore Pickett Chapel in Lebanon is progressing smoothly and the committee is encouraged as a result.

During the week before Christmas, the committee looked to put finishing touches onto the chapel’s annex, space that will enable the chapel’s conversion into a history museum.

Wilson County Black History Committee Chairperson Mary Harris spoke on behalf of the entire committee.

“We are extremely grateful for the progress of the Pickett Chapel Restoration Project,” Harris said. “We want to give thanks to each individual, business, organization and church for their support during the past year.”

She’s not the only one thrilled with results from the previous year.

“I think this year we stepped it up a little bit,” said committee member Bill Moss on Tuesday. “We are looking to close the deal by completing renovations (in 2022).

“We’re nearing the point of completing the project in terms of its renovations.”

Renovations are only just the first step, as Moss explained. The larger picture involves converting the historic chapel into a legacy museum for years to come.

“Our next goal down the road is marking that museum a viable place to learn about history in Wilson County,” Moss said. “One of the things I’m proudest of is that we took many strides forward, getting the work done to show people progress.”

Moss also commented how encouraged that he was at the attendance for the Juneteenth Street Festival.

“When you looked up the road and saw all the people there celebrating, it was a strong moment for our committee,” Moss said.

Once the museum is completed, Moss is looking forward to having local students visit the chapel and see what history lies in store.

“It’s easy to read about history in a book,” said Moss. “Experiencing it is a whole different ball game.”

The committee remains dedicated to offering that experience in more ways than one. A quick glance back at 2021 lays out all the proof.

Last January, the committee held its ninth annual MLK Unity March and Motorcade.

At the time, Harris told the Democrat, “This is a unity march. I’m an older woman. I’ve seen both sides of this street, and I think it’s time for us to come together.”

Community members heard that call and turned out by the dozens to support the march, whether on foot or by car.

Shortly after, the chapel received a historic place registry designation. Then, later in February, a Black History Month celebration was held at the Capitol Theatre. It came as relief on the heels of a week-long snow storm.

The committee presented a screening of Lee Daniels’ ”The Butler,” which tells the story of Cecil Gaines, a character based on the real-life Eugene Allen. Allen worked as a butler in the White House for 34 years, serving seven presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan. He retired in 1986 as the highest-ranking White House servant.

Harris said that the screening was a way to raise money for the restoration of Pickett Chapel. In years past, the committee had held different fundraising events during Black History Month. For the previous two years, the committee hosted Black History trivia night. Another trivia night was scheduled for 2021 too, but plans were revised out of COVID-19 safety precautions.

It was a busy summer for the committee. It hosted a Juneteenth Street Fair, honored the Negro League Lebanon Clowns in July and hosted a 155th anniversary event at Pickett Chapel in August.

Finally, in September, the Capitol Theatre was the site of the committee’s largest annual fundraiser for the restoration project. At the time, Moss said that the intent of the event was to raise awareness as much as it was about raising money.

With 2021 drawing to a close, the committee is turning its attention to 2022 and the opportunities to continue its mission of serving the entire community by sponsoring worthwhile events that are historical, social and educational in nature.

First up in the new year is the committee’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Unity March and Motorcade on Jan. 15. Then, on Feb. 20, there will be a Black History Month celebration at the Capitol Theatre. More details will be made available.

Staffing shortages continue for first responders

Sara Patton

Joey Cooper

As the year winds down, the staffing shortfalls that have plagued the Wilson County Emergency Management Agency (WEMA) are showing no signs of slowing. As the county waits on the results of a pay study before moving to bolster benefits, it’s had to put a Band-Aid on the problem.

The county commissioned the pay study to highlight the disparities facing county employees with their counterparts from nearby areas. That study is expected to be completed soon.

Earlier this month, the Wilson County Budget Committee met and discussed amendment requests for WEMA. One of those requests involves moving $500,000 around from its budget to cover overtime expenses.

For the remaining employees that the county has retained, significant overtime pay has accrued as the agency scrambles to cover all the bases.

Since October, during a period of 78 calendar days, Station 7 in Statesville has experienced 31 shifts worth of closures. Station 11 that services the Norene community has similarly experienced six shifts worth of closures.

The problem persists. During this month’s regularly-scheduled county commission meeting, commissioner Justin Smith pressed WEMA Director Joey Cooper for updates.

“(I have) one question and one question only, and I’m going to ask you every month,” said Smith. “How many employees are we down?”

Cooper related to the county commission that five more employees had left since the previous month’s meeting. Cooper said that brings the total number of open positions at the agency to 26.

Since applications opened four months ago, there have only been five applications submitted for open positions, and two of those were part-time requests from former WEMA employees, who left to seek full-time opportunities elsewhere.

For perspective, a fully-staffed shift covering the entire county as intended comprises a total of 41 people, including 17 emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and 17 paramedics. With those in place, advanced life support can be offered on all 11 ambulances in operation throughout the county, with a minimum of 11 paramedics.

Continuing to keep coverage afloat in the county has required some creative improvisation. However, the typical result involves relinquishing coverage over certain areas.

According to the WEMA monthly report, Station 7 receives the fewest calls by a significant margin. During the year, the station averaged slightly more than six ambulance runs per month. In March, it only sent out one ambulance the entire month.

As for fire runs by station, that same one has more months this year without a call than with one.

Conversely, Station 1 (Lebanon South) and Station 9 (Lebanon North) comprised just less than half of all ambulance calls, averaging 337 calls and 274 calls, respectively.

Commissioner Sara Patton, whose district has been severely impacted by the stations’ closing, said at the meeting that waiting for a disaster to strike will be too late to address the problem.

“Thank goodness the tornado wasn’t all over the county,” Patton told Cooper. “We have to cover all areas of the county. The bottom line is that is what we are here for … to protect all the citizens of Wilson County.”

Once the pay study actually comes out, adjusting wages to remain competitive will require additional revenue. However, the county’s hands are somewhat tied as the sales tax for the county is already maxed out. Considerations for a property tax increase have been floated during some committee meetings.

According to the Wilson County Finance Director Aaron Maynard, a one-cent property tax increase generates $595,000.