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Demands on volunteer fire departments taking toll

May 16, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

INWOOD, W.Va. -- About two years of weekly bingo games helped the South Berkeley Volunteer Fire Co. finance the purchase of a $560,000 truck recently, but finding time for fundraising as demands for service have increased has become a more difficult challenge for Berkeley County's volunteer firefighters.

"I think the county needs to make a decision -- do they want us to be firefighters or do they was us to be fundraisers," Bedington Volunteer Fire Department Chief Tommy Newcomb said Friday.

Finding time for fundraising wasn't a problem in the early 1980s when the northern Berkeley County department only responded to about 150 fire calls per year, but that number is on track to top 1,000 this year, Newcomb said.

From Jan. 1 through April 30, the department handled 301 calls, Newcomb said. The department responded to 885 calls in 2008, up from 617 in 2003, but in that time, Bedington only has received a $250 increase in its operating budget from the county's fire board, Newcomb said.

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The operations of the county's five volunteer fire departments are supported by annual fire fees collected from commercial and residential property owners. Homeowners pay $40 per year if their residence is greater than 2,500 square feet and $30 for homes that are smaller. Commercial property owners pay an amount ranging between $80 and $975 per year.

Newcomb said the fee only has been increased twice since it was implemented. While it might not be popular to increase it again, the amount of money generated is not keeping up with the department's needs.

Major repairs are needed at Bedington's main station, and the department is paying the county's sewer district a monthly fee for service it does not receive because the organization does not have the money for the hook-up, Newcomb said.

When the new station for the Hedgesville (W.Va.) Volunteer Fire Co. is completed, possibly by Nov. 30, Chief Mike Nichols said he hopes the department will have room to host larger fundraisers such as bingo.

The fire company has rented a hall at the Berkeley County Youth Fair Grounds to hold basket bingo games twice a year and also has held bake sales and a photography fundraiser, Nichols said.

In addition to the new station, Hedgesville is applying for a federal grant to buy a tanker truck and also needs a ladder truck, given the growth of homes and town house developments in its service area, Nichols said.

Nichols said the tanker truck is needed to haul water to fires west of Hedgesville, where the extension of public water service lines has not followed the area's population growth.

"There's no hydrants being put in," Nichols said. "We're having to take as much water with us as possible."

Back Creek Valley Volunteer Fire Co. Chief Daniel Petry said his department had organized bingo games as a fundraiser, but crowds dwindled to the point they weren't viable.

The company recently held a tractor-truck pull that Petry said raised about $4,000, but he noted the economy is making fundraising tougher.

Back Creek Valley was able to purchase a Ferrara rescue engine this spring for $308,000 by saving fire insurance premium tax money it receives from the state on a quarterly basis in addition to its fundraisers, Petry said.

The purchase allowed the company to sell a 1983 minipumper, he said.

South Berkeley Fire Chief Richard "Rick" Petry said the department's bingo and other fundraising efforts helped make a $220,000 down payment possible for the company's new truck, a 2009 Pierce Arrow XT pumper-tanker.

While South Berkeley's membership enjoys working the bingo games and appreciates the community support, Petry said the department's needs are never ending and include a new station to accommodate the growing size of the equipment itself.

As the cost of equipment continues to increase, Newcomb expects the additional time needed to raise money will discourage people from volunteering.

"There comes a point when you don't have any time for your job, you don't have any time for your family ... something has to give," Newcomb said.

Baker Heights Volunteer Fire Department Chief Marty Roberts was unavailable for comment last week.

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