It was with a mixture of disappointment, sadness and anger that I received the news that the proposed fire fee in Barbour County had been voted down.
While I understand that money is tight for a lot of folks, what I don't understand is the logic (or lack thereof) behind voting this important fee down. For months now the controversy of the proposed fire fee has divided this county, and it literally leaves me shaking my head in disbelief.
Do people honestly not realize what they have done by voting against this fee? Some folks would have you believe the fire departments would somehow be profiting had this fee been passed. There were comments and fliers made regarding the response time of the departments and how they didn't actually deserve this fee because they couldn't even put out a fire several blocks away. Ads were placed in the paper implying that the departments had no right to receive assistance from this fee because after all, the firefighters are "just volunteers."
My husband has been a volunteer firefighter in the Philippi Volunteer Fire Department for nearly 15 years. He has left in the middle of a meal, excused himself from family gatherings, left work and gotten out of a warm bed numerous times in the middle of the night - all to respond to those in need of help. Yes, he's a volunteer and he loves what he does.
But let me tell all of you who voted against the fire fee what being a "volunteer" means today. These "volunteers" are required to have NIMS training (National Incident Management System); they are required to complete and pass Firefighter I and Firefighter II training courses; they are required to respond to at least 25 percent of calls to be considered active (a bigger task than it sounds when you consider most of these responders are employed full time and have families) and each department has its own training schedule and certification requirements. So when an ad in the paper that is anti-fire fee says they are "just volunteers," it infuriates me.
Does no one understand the magnitude of the decision the voters just made for this county? Some may think that I am writing this simply because I am the wife of a firefighter, and to that I can say you are quite mistaken. You see, I wrote the grant applications for the Philippi Volunteer Fire Department for four years so I am very familiar with how much money the department takes in, where it comes from and how they get it.
In order to qualify to simply apply for some of these grants, the departments are required to provide the number of responders who have completed the required NIMS training and what courses they have completed, the number of responders who have completed and passed (Yes - our volunteers are required to pass tests for these courses) Firefighter I and Firefighter II, and the number of active members the department has.
When they are requesting funds from some grants, they have to provide what the funds will be used to purchase, if the funds are replacing old or outdated equipment or gear and if so, how old the current equipment or gear is. They have to provide the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) standards the purchase will meet and indicate whether the purchase will bring the department into compliance with state or federal regulations. They have to provide information on the county, the number of residents, the number of departments with whom they share mutual assistance calls, the number of fires, the number of car wrecks, the number of water rescues ... the list goes on and on.
The PVFD was fortunate enough to be awarded two Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG) over the past few years. One was used to purchase new rescue/vehicle extrication equipment (what we all commonly call the Jaws of Life and other tools) and the other was used to purchase new helmets, hoods, gloves and goggles. The total of these two grants was close to $40,000 and that amount doesn't begin to touch the financial need that our department has for equipment.
For example, PVFD's firefighters are all wearing turnout gear that is over six years old. That might not seem like a big deal to many of you, but let me explain. Among other things, the current NFPA standard for turnout gear requires that the coats the responders wear have a loop called a Drag Rescue Device (DRD) on the back near the nape of the neck. That loop is supposed to be there so that if a firefighter goes down, another firefighter can grab onto that loop to pull the downed firefighter out of the structure fire or away from the scene. PVFD's turnout gear is outdated and does not have the DRD.
The cost for new turnout gear? To fully outfit one firefighter costs anywhere between approximately $1,500-$2,500 and up. Now multiply that by roughly 20-30 firefighters. Now you have around $30,000-$75,000 just to outfit the responders. Then figure in the cost of equipment, training (yes the departments have to pay for the firefighters' training), maintenance on the trucks and equipment, insurance, worker's compensation ... again, the list goes on and on.
The departments receive a limited amount of funds from the local government, but they rely on fundraisers as one of their primary sources of supplemental income. People and businesses in the community are asked for donations so often any more that they don't want to give. So where does that leave the department? Someone said that they would rather see the firefighters get out there and go door to door collecting money and doing fundraisers than to pay the $40 per year.
I lived in Elkins for 13 years and paid fire fees during that time. I never once batted an eye at or questioned those fees. Did paying those fees guarantee that they were going to be able to save my property or my life if my house caught on fire? No. What it did mean was that those responders were more likely to be outfitted with the proper gear and equipment to respond should my house catch on fire.
These guys are our families, folks. They are our husbands, fathers, brothers, friends, neighbors and coworkers. These are the guys who don't hesitate to drop what they are doing to help someone in need. They are the ones who are there when we are hurt, when we need help or when we need to know that there are still people in this world who volunteer just because it's the right thing to do. They are part of the good guys left out there in this world.
We don't send our military to fight a war without the proper equipment, so why would we send our firefighters to fight a fire or into a dangerous scenario without the proper equipment?
To the people who voted "No" on the fire fee, I say shame on you.
You have not only disrespected our local heroes by saying they are "just volunteers," you have lowered the morale of every firefighter in this county. Tell us all what you would do if there were no more volunteer firefighters. Then convince us all you did the right thing by voting "no."