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Fire chiefs dispute five minute scratch at county commission

March 01, 2002|BY SARAH MULLIN

Fire chiefs from Berkeley County's volunteer fire companies gathered at the Berkeley County (W.Va.) Commission meeting Thursday to debate the merits of the five-minute scratch policy, which requires companies to wait five minutes before responding to a fire not in their response area.

Fire chiefs from Bedington, South Berkeley, Hedgesville, and Baker Heights Volunteer Fire Companies were on hand for the meeting.

Steve Allen, director of the Berkeley County Office of Emergency Services, proposed eliminating the five-minute scratch policy, a step that would enable all five fire companies to respond to a fire call immediately.

The commissioners asked Allen to return to discuss the matter after it is presented to the Berkeley County Fire Board.

South Berkeley Volunteer Fire Company Chief Richard Petry said he doesn't think the policy should be changed.

"South Berkeley received 546 fire calls last year and if we have to respond to the 500 from Bedington and the other companies we will have to replace the unit (truck) in less than a year," he said.

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The fire companies and the Office of Emergency Services have a mutual-aid agreement.

When a fire company receives a call from central dispatch regarding a fire in its response area, the company will call other companies for assistance as needed. The first companies called are those closest to the fire, including Martinsburg Fire Co.

If the first company dispatched does not respond in five minutes, a second company is dispatched, and then the third, fourth, fifth. The five-minute scratch allows the volunteers from the company called to get to the station and out to the scene.

Commissioner John Wright said it no longer seems prudent or functional to have the fire departments wait five minutes.

Robert Robinson, president of the Fire and Rescue Association, said the system has worked fine.

"We don't want a whole bunch of trucks running. People complain that they see all kinds of fire trucks on the road and then they get to the scene, and it is only a small brush fire. We can't run all five companies everywhere," he said.

Andy Martin, chief of Bedington Volunteer Fire Department, said if the five-minute scratch policy is discontinued there will be territorial competition, and trucks will speed to be the first on the scene.

Currently, the company that responds to a call in its response area is in charge of the scene, even if an assisting company arrives first.

"Morale drops without the mutual-aid agreement system and you can run into laziness," he said.

Volunteer firefighters may allow the paid personnel of the Office of Emergency Services and Martinsburg Fire Department to take the calls, he said.

"There is a very delicate balance between paid and volunteer. It could wind up costing the county a lot of money without the volunteers," he said. "It is a good thing Berkeley County has such a strong volunteer force. I want to keep it that way."

Robinson said he was disconcerted because he felt the five-minute scratch policy should have been discussed first by the association.

The Commissioners agreed and told them to come back with a decision after they have presented it to the Berkeley County Fire Board.

But, "the buck stops here," Commissioner Bob Burkhart said.

Robinson told the commissioners that the Fire and Rescue Association will hold two public meetings on the proposed fire fee increase for all Berkeley County residents, excluding residents of the city of Martinsburg. The fee would increase from $20 to $25.

The meetings are on March 6 at 6:30 p.m. at the Bedington Volunteer Fire Company at 775 Bedington Road, Martinsburg, and on March 7 at 6:30 p.m. at the South Berkeley substation located at 4127, Winchester Avenue, Martinsburg.

Robinson said the association would like to upgrade its buildings - two were built in the 1950s and one in the 1960s - and want to work toward putting paid firefighters in the companies.

"If we have people in the stations there will be a quicker response, but we need this to do it," he said. "The issue of putting paid people in the county is touchy, but we know it will work."

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