Berkeley County Fire Service Board completes strategic plan

December 03, 2011|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD |
  • Gregory Rhoe
Gregory Rhoe

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Berkeley County's volunteer fire companies need more manpower, improved facilities and equipment to ably respond to the county's explosive growth, according to a recently completed plan that outlines short- and long-term strategies for tackling the challenge.

In addition to hiring career firefighters to supplement the county's five volunteer companies, the Berkeley County Fire Service Board's recently completed strategic plan suggests adoption of an incentive-based volunteer recruitment and retention program styled after one in Washington County.

It also recommends the hiring of a training/recruitment officer for firefighters and employment of a full-time administrator for Berkeley County Fire Service Board Inc., which handles bill paying for the volunteer fire companies and collects a fire fee from property owners.  

Fire service board Chairman Gregory Rhoe said Wednesday that the strategic plan, if followed, should provide a "structured framework" to help address the county's growing challenge of having enough manpower to provide fire suppression services and better fulfill operation and capital improvement needs.

A specific adjustment in the county's fire fee structure is not requested in the strategic plan, but the plan does recommend an increase in the commercial rates, which were found to be a greater burden to small-business owners.

"The Macy's 1.3 million (square foot) distribution center will generate $975 for the Fire Service Board, but would generate $97,500 under the City of Martinsburg's rate structure," the report states. In fact, any commercial structure larger than 20,001 square feet is charged $975, according to the county's fire fee ordinance. Residential fire fees are $30 or $40, depending on square footage.

The current fire fee structure has been in place since 2005 and generates about $1.3 million, but the fire service board's budget is projected to increase to more than $2.6 million by 2016, according to the report.

While the Berkeley County Council has the authority to decide whether to increase the fire fee, Rhoe said the fire service board has an obligation not to let the challenges the fire companies are facing today be ignored and "kicked further down the road."

A first step forward

Adding full-time career firefighters to the current volunteer-based system is a "very touchy subject," but Rhoe said the agreement reached to disband the county's fire engine and assign its paid crew to work from South Berkeley and Bedington stations during daytime hours was "a great first step forward" to addressing manpower concerns.

Staffing challenges are cited in the strategic plan, which indicates delayed response to structure fires is a "significant" problem in Berkeley County.

Response times of greater than 10 minutes were recorded in 28 percent of more than 2,300 reported structure fires between 2006 and 2010, according to the strategic plan. The majority of the delayed responses happened during regular workday and commuting hours, when fire chiefs reported fewer volunteers were available, according to the report.

"While it is clearly understood that the fire companies are fully volunteer organization(s), Berkeley County cannot continue to allow growth in delayed responses," the report states.

Altogether, the county's five volunteer companies responded to more than 14,000 incidents from 2006 to 2010, according to the West Virginia State Fire Marshal's office.

Given the amount of training that now is required of them, Rhoe said volunteer firefighters today are making a "tremendous sacrifice" to serve their communities everywhere.

And when coupled with the fact that thousands of residents leave Berkeley County for work each day, Rhoe said the number of people who are even available to volunteer is reduced.

"We have such an outward migration," Rhoe said. "People live here, but they don't work here."

Improvements still needed

The structural condition of each company's main fire station was not the subject of in-depth analysis, but the strategic plan notes that four out of five main stations lack a backup or auxiliary power source.

While Hedgesville firefighters have a relatively new station, the report says South Berkeley and Baker Heights' fire stations still need to be replaced. Substations manned by South Berkeley and Bedington volunteers also need "major work," according to the report. A comprehensive capital improvements plan should be developed to specify the total need of each station.

While the report says the fire companies' extrication equipment is generally in good condition, it also indicates most protective clothing at four out of the five departments needs to be replaced.

Only two of the volunteer fire companies issued personal breathing masks to their firefighters in accordance with health and safety recommendations, and fire hose needs to be replaced at most of the departments, according to the report.

As the fire service board chairman, Rhoe said he currently acts as the agency's "de facto" volunteer administrator, but believes a full-time administrator would bring about long-term stability and that person would help carry out the board's strategic plans. Rhoe noted that he and other board members are limited to serving two, three-year terms.

"The Fire Board and the volunteer fire departments have ongoing and pressing needs that simply cannot be addressed by a volunteer chairman, and the board's existing staff resources have been focused on the present with little emphasis on the future," the report states.

The fire service board currently employs two people full time. A part-time employee handles fee billing and collection, delinquent fee collection, bill paying for the board and the volunteer fire companies, and maintains the accounting system.

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