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Dry conditions stretch W.Va. fire companies

August 02, 2007|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Daytime brush and grass fires fed by recent drought-like conditions are happening when volunteer fire departments, already in need of personnel, have the least number of firefighters available to respond, officials say.

"You don't have, in the afternoon, a large number of personnel and that's when we're having these fires," said Stephen S. Allen, director of the Berkeley County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

"A lot of it is discarded smoking materials," Allen said of the cause of many fires, which have been aided by afternoon winds and "tinder box" conditions for brush and grass.

Baker Heights Volunteer Fire Department assistant chief Travis Shroades said the company's staff of 43 active volunteers doesn't afford much room for providing eastern Berkeley County residents with adequate personnel to respond to multiple calls.

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"It stretches it thin," Shroades said.

The department off Charles Town Road (W.Va. 9) near the Veterans Affairs Medical Center no longer has an auxiliary, a support unit for firefighters at a fire scene, Shroades said.

In Jefferson County, Independent Fire Co. chief Ed Smith said staffing levels are also low, with as little as two or three on station in the daytime.

"We've reached a critical stage," Smith said. "We're seeing a 5 to 7 percent increase in number of calls each year and we haven't seen a corresponding increase in number of volunteers."

Though the department had 15 new volunteers this year, Smith estimated that over the years 70 percent of new recruits are overwhelmed by the demands of the service and are gone within a few months.

Smith said the Ranson, W.Va.-based fire company also has been fortunate to have a few "career" firefighters, like Shroades, who have time to volunteer after working multiple 24-hour shifts.

Shroades, who is employed at Martinsburg Fire Department, said his own availability to "run calls" with Baker Heights is limited at times.

"The first responsibility in my life is my family," said Shroades, a father of two girls, ages 5 and 3. His wife, Amy, also volunteers at Baker Heights, he said.

"I can't go forever," Shroades said.

Allen said many residents see a fire truck at the scene of an incident and fail to realize the underlying manpower shortage.

"It gives you a false sense of security to see that fire engine there, but there may be only one or two (firefighters) on the truck," Allen said.

Allen said he asked the Berkeley County Commission for a number of years to establish a full-time, 24-hour paid service to assist the volunteer companies, but that has been denied because of lack of funding.

His proposal this year was for 15 firefighters, including three supervisors, to work a 24-hour, 365-day schedule. His cost estimate was $750,000, including his salary and the deparment's administrative assistant. Allen currently has a four-member crew of part-time staff to provide 12 hours of daytime coverage five days a week.

"We're rolling the dice," Allen said. "One of these days it's going to catch up with us."

With no immediate plan to bolster Allen's department with full-time staff, Shroades said he would simply like to encourage people to consider volunteering with the county's five volunteer departments as a way to give back and make a difference in the community.

"There's no other feeling like it," Shroades said.

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