Lack of volunteers forces fire depts. to hire paid personnel

Chief Johnny Hiatt noted salaries and unemployment insurance will cost the department about $43,000 to staff the new positions


By Andy Winemiller
The Mount Airy News

DOBSON, N.C. — One volunteer fire department now has a paid staff, and another department will soon follow suit.

South Surry Volunteer Fire Department began paying part-time firefighters on Feb. 1, according to Tony Tilley, the department’s chief.

Tilley said the four part-time firefighters will work eight-hour days, with one person on duty from 7 a.m. through 3:30 p.m. on Monday through Friday. They will rotate between the department’s two stations, and each will work no more than 25 hours per week.

Tilley said the move had been in the works for quite some time. His department worked for about a year to put it in motion.

The change in direction has been something with which South Surry and other departments have been tangling for years, as pools of able and willing volunteers dry up.

“It used to be people in Surry County were farmers or self-employed. If a call came in, they could drop what they were doing and go help,” explained Tilley. “Now it’s hard to find people people who can get off work to do that.”

Tilley mentioned his department has 38 people on its roster, but if he sees 12 to 15 volunteers at a call, he considers it a good turn-out.

Also playing into the scheme are increased administrative and education requirements for departments and firefighters. Many volunteers miss calls because they are attending required continuing education sessions.

Tilley said the paid firefighters won’t be sitting around all day waiting for a call to answer. They will be busy checking trucks and water points and performing maintenance, which will help volunteers shift their priorities during meetings.

“With all of that maintenance taken care of, when we have our meetings volunteers will have more opportunity to conduct training,” added Tilley.

The Surry County Board of Commissioners increased the tax rate in the South Surry Fire District in the 2016-17 fiscal year’s budget from 5.5 cents to 6.5 cents per $100 of property value.

Tilley noted his board had asked for an increase of two cents in order to hire two positions and staff each station throughout the week.

According to figures provided by Surry County Finance Officer Sarah Bowen, this fire department is expected to collect $182,042, about $28,000 more in tax dollars than the department would have collected at its prior tax rate.

Tilley said the increase is reflective of the costs associated with adding the paid staff, and the penny increase goes entirely toward funding that on-duty person.

South Surry was among three departments which received bumps to their tax rate in the 2016-17 fiscal year. The other two were the Franklin Volunteer Fire Department and the C.C. Camp Volunteer Fire Department.

FRANKLIN IS NEXT

Franklin is also set to soon hire part-time employees. However, Chief Johnny Hiatt said the current fiscal year’s tax rate hike is unrelated to the move. The department will ask commissioners for another penny and a half on the tax rate in the 2017-18 fiscal year.

Hiatt explained when the department built its new station on West Pine Street about eight years ago, the department had requested a two-cent increase to pay for increased costs. At the time, county commissioners only granted half of the request, upping the rate by a penny.

Hiatt said his department has struggled to pay higher costs such as power bills and maintenance costs associated with the larger structure, which is also used as a Red Cross shelter, by emergency management and by other entities.

“Commissioners agreed to give us the other penny we had expected years before,” added Hiatt, who has been a volunteer for the department for more than three decades.

Hiatt explained his department is adding two part-time firefighter positions to its organization, which will be filled by eight personnel. The two firefighters on duty each day will work an eight-hour shift which begins at 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. Each of the department’s two stations will be manned.

The two paid personnel will be a huge asset to the department and the community, said Hiatt.

“With volunteers we might get a truck out of the door in three, four, five or even six minutes,” explained Hiatt. “With the paid positions, that truck will be out of the door in 30 seconds.”

With four county schools in the fire district (Franklin, Meadowview, Gentry and North Surry) and a population of more than 8,000 served, Hiatt emphasized a quicker response time matters. It can save lives and damage to property. Additionally, the firefighters will respond to all medical calls in the district, likely beating EMS paramedics to the scene to provide potentially life-saving treatment.

His department ran more than 800 calls in 2016, according to the chief.

Hiatt said there’s additional benefits to the department. Like at South Surry, the paid firefighters won’t sit around all day waiting for a call. They will be put to work performing necessary maintenance, checking water points and completing paperwork.

In the past, volunteers have had to spend at least one Sunday every month doing such work.

“I’ve had 31 years of Sunday workdays,” said the chief.

According to Hiatt, the administrative burden which falls on fire departments has greatly increased in recent years. However, keeping up with some of those mundane matters helps the department keep its ISO rating up, which positively impacts homeowners’ insurance premiums in the fire district.

The 1.5-cent tax increase for which the department has asked would generate about $65,000 in additional revenue to fund the addition of the part-time personnel, according to Bowen’s numbers, which are based on a 96-percent collection rate.

Hiatt noted salaries and unemployment insurance will cost the department about $43,000 to staff the new positions. Firefighter compensation will be $10 per hour.

According to Hiatt, dollars will be needed for more than just salaries, however. Each new addition to the department will need equipment and uniforms. The cost of worker’s compensation insurance will skyrocket once paid personnel come on board, increasing from less than $100 per person to more than $300 per person.

Hiatt said at 8,000 residents served, his department is serving nearly as many people as Mount Airy’s full-time fire department, and like Tilley, he has seen volunteer participation decrease.

“People can’t take the time off work anymore,” said Hiatt. “They don’t work for themselves anymore.”

Hiatt said the department is still accepting applications for the positions, which he hopes to have filled by the end of April.

He urged interested applicants to call him at (336) 710-8232. To be eligible, applicants must be 21, certified firefighters and hold emergency medical technician basic credentials. One must also have a North Carolina Class B driver’s license and be a certified emergency vehicle driver.

THE MOVEMENT BEGINS

The movement to a part-time firefighting force supported by volunteers shouldn’t catch anybody in county government off guard. Commissioners have discussed a possible need to bring paid personnel on board while finalizing a county budget in recent years.

The major factor driving the movement in that direction is the unavailability of a qualified pool of volunteers.

“Our volunteers have gone down to rock-bottom numbers,” said Hiatt.

Other chiefs who have presented to the board of commissioners have sung a similar tune in regards to the availability of volunteers.

In 2007, The News reported there were about 100 less volunteers throughout the county’s 19 fire districts than in 1989. At that time, Surry County Fire Marshal Doug Jones said, “It’s probably getting into the crisis, or near-crisis, level.”

Hiatt said nearly a decade ago departments throughout the county sought the same remedy they are putting into motion now, but failed to gain the support of county officials at the time. Now with a board which is understanding of the woes, most departments in the county are planning to move forward with similar plans in the coming years.

Hiatt added departments in surrounding counties use a similar system to the one being put in place in Surry County.

Copyright 2017 The Mount Airy News

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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