Operating a fire department is extremely expensive, and many Randolph County fire departments are worried they will be smothered under rising costs.
Charlie Moats, chairman of the Randolph County Fire Protection Association, said most departments have three major concerns: the increasing expense of workers' compensation, the cost of equipment and the dwindling numbers of new volunteers.
"In the last couple years, our workers' compensation costs have more than tripled," Moats said. "They base our compensation on an average wage of about $14 an hour. If you calculate that out, compensation runs between $8,000 and $20,000 a year for a department, depending on how many hours are logged."
Moats explained that workers compensation must be paid for every hour logged, including mandatory training hours and hours spent in meetings.
While the state government has historically provided financial support for firefighters' compensation costs, Moats said the government is going to need to find a way to deal with the rising costs.
Harman Fire Chief Jerry Teter said one of the reasons workers' compensation is costing departments more then ever is that they have more work than in the past.
"We used to only make maybe 50 or 60 runs a year, now we make at least 200," Teter said. "There are also a lot of things the state used to take care of that they don't any more, like trees in the road.
"We do all kinds of things, now," he said. "The other day we had to deal with a vehicle that ran out of gas. That should have been handled by a wrecker, but it wasn't. And, of course, we had to pay compensation on the hours that our guys logged while they dealt with the car."
Another contributing factor, Teter explained, is the growing training requirements for fire fighters.
"Whenever your guys participate in training, you have to pay comp. It's just eating everybody up," Teter said.
Moats said the astronomical cost of equipment is also placing financial strain on departments.
For example, he said, "Just to train and outfit a fire fighter costs between $3,000 and $4,000."
Added to that are the costs of all of the other equipment necessary to operate a fire department.
Ryan Roberts, the eastern West Virginia sales representative for Fineley Fire Equipment, the company that supplies West Virginia fire departments with equipment, provided several examples of just some of the costs departments face.
"A pair of gloves costs $45," he said. "Boots cost $275. A coat and a pair of pants costs $1,500. A self-contained breathing apparatus, which every firefighter entering a structure must be equipped with, costs between $4,800 and $5,400. The jaws of life cost $38,000 for the most basic model. A thermal imager costs $12,000. The minimum cost of a new fire truck is between $225,00 and $300,000. To equip a truck for 1,200 feet of four-inch hose costs $26,000. One portable radio costs $2,900, and a pager is $350."
In addition to the rising costs of workers compensation and equipment, Moats said that most departments are struggling to recruit new members.
"As the older guys get out, departments are not getting a big wave of people to fill the void," Moats said.
He believes fire departments need to find a new way to draw volunteers.
"Life is so complicated these days that people who might want to volunteer don't have the time to get trained. If you have a little bit of free time, you're probably not going to join the fire department. You might join the local golf club or the Elks club, something that doesn't require getting 120 hours of training."
However, as important as it is for departments to bring in new blood, they also need to make sure their recruits are in for the long haul.
"It's a big investment to train someone and get them outfitted with all of the necessary equipment. We lose a lot of money if someone joins for, say, six months," Moats said.
One way to ensure dedication in recruits is to require them to sign a contract, which is something a number of Randolph County Departments are considering, including Harman, Teter said.
"Once you get a guy trained and suited up, you have about $3,500 in him. We're going to write up a contract so that if a guy joins and leaves within a year he has to pay us back for his training.
"Of course, if he moves or gets sick, we would make allowances. But, it just costs too much to have someone join for a couple months and then transfer or just quit because he loses interest," he said.
While it might be difficult to imagine fire departments closing their doors, Randolph County citizens should start considering the possibility, officials said.
"I think, if something doesn't change, if the state does not start limiting some of our costs, it's a realistic worry that some departments might not be able to continue operating," Moats said.
"Randolph County citizens have always been very supportive whenever we are fundraising," he said. "We want to thank them for that, and thank them for their continued support."
Contact Joe Hoover by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.