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Firefighters converge on Panhandle

September 11, 2006|by DAVE McMILLION

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - About 180 firefighters from across West Virginia gathered in Jefferson County over the weekend for an annual conference to discuss issues like ways to attract more people into volunteer firefighting - which has been an issue among Eastern Panhandle fire departments.

If residents couldn't tell the group was in town, it made its presence known Sunday when firefighters from three states participated in a parade through Charles Town and neighboring Ranson, W.Va.

After going through Ranson, the parade proceeded west on Washington Street and included units from fire departments in Jefferson County, Washington County, Md., Brunswick, Md., and Berryville, Va.

A light crowd gathered along Washington Street to watch the parade.

"It's good to have something like that," said Albert Talton of Charles Town, who ventured downtown to watch the parade after becoming curious about why police had streets closed.

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Members of the West Virginia State Firemen's Association hold their annual business meeting every year at different locations, said Henry Christie, president of the Jefferson County Fire and Rescue Association, which sponsored the conference.

The conference has not been held in the area since the early 1990s and much of the conference's business was taken up at the Quality Inn near Harpers Ferry, W.Va., Christie said.

Among the issues discussed during the weekend convention were ways to make volunteer firefighting more attractive to prospective members.

Jefferson County has six volunteer fire departments, but county officials have been talking about blending the county's volunteer fire service with a paid fire service because volunteer fire companies have had trouble getting enough volunteers to staff the departments.

One way to make volunteer firefighting more attractive is to offer firefighters death benefit insurance and retirement programs, said state Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley.

Volunteer departments do not have retirement systems or offer death benefit insurance, Unger said.

Unger said he talked to firefighters at the conference on Friday about a retirement system and death benefit insurance and plans to pursue them through state legislation.

Other highlights of the convention included a banquet Saturday night at the Quality Inn, where actor Randolph Mantooth spoke. Mantooth played the role of Johnny Gage in the television show "Emergency!" and has been interested in firefighting issues over the years, Christie said.

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