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Commissioner talks of paid fire service

August 22, 2003|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

With the number of volunteer firefighters dwindling in Jefferson County, the idea of a paid fire department is being discussed.

Jefferson County Commissioner Greg Corliss talked about the matter during the commission meeting Thursday morning.

Corliss said the problem was illustrated recently by a couple of large fires, including one that broke out in a tour bus as it was entering Charles Town Races & Slots last month.

In that case, all five of the county's volunteer departments were called out to extinguish the blaze, Corliss said.

With such situations cropping up, the county eventually will be forced to consider a paid firefighting service, Corliss said.

"The question is, who is going to pay for it?" asked Corliss, who said he attended last week's Jefferson County Fire and Rescue Association meeting, at which the matter was discussed.

The problem of finding enough volunteers to respond to calls occurs mostly during the day, when firefighters are at work, said Ed Smith, chief of the Independent Fire Co., a volunteer station in Charles Town.

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Eight to 10 years ago, it was typical for any of the county's volunteer departments to have five to 10 volunteers show up for a call, Smith said.

Now, the number of volunteers responding to calls is about three to five per station, he said.

"That's just not enough on major incidents," Smith said.

A possible approach could be a paid fire service that would supplement the volunteer fire companies, similar to the setup for ambulance service in the county, Smith said.

Four years ago, the Jefferson County Commission established a paid ambulance service that costs about $600,000 a year.

The ambulance service was started because there weren't enough volunteer ambulance crews to respond to calls during the day, Smith said.

Not only aren't there enough volunteers available during the day, but fewer people are joining the volunteer ranks.

The number of volunteer firefighters at the Shepherdstown (W.Va.) Fire Department has decreased by about 50 percent, Chief Leon Catrow said.

Catrow said his department set up a booth at the Jefferson County Fair this week in an attempt to get volunteers.

"Nobody seems to have the time, or wants to volunteer anymore," Catrow said.

Catrow said he believes any paid service in the county would use equipment from the volunteer fire departments. Although cost estimates for a paid department still are being determined, Catrow said he believes it could cost about $280,000 a year.

"It's going to be pretty expensive," Catrow said.

In the late 1980s, Berkeley County started a paid firefighting service to back up the volunteer companies there. The paid department, operated through the Berkeley County Office of Emergency Services, has about 10 part-time firefighters, Berkeley County Commission President Howard Strauss said Thursday.

Morgan County does not have paid firefighters.

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