City considers hiring part-time firefighter for supplemental coverage

Council approved a job description Thursday but would still need to receive approval from the W.Va. Municipal Home Rule Board to move forward

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Buckhannon fire chief J.B. Kimble at Thursday's city council meeting.

BUCKHANNON – For the first time ever, the City of Buckhannon is contemplating hiring a paid part-time firefighter to supplement its coverage of the city and county.

In 2016, Buckhannon City Council hired the department’s first part-time officer, Patrolman Tanner Collins – a decision made possible through a provision under the West Virginia Municipal Home Rule program.

Now, as the volume of calls the fire department answers keeps climbing, chief J.B. Kimble and the BFD’s career firefighters have been seeking ways to bolster manpower. One of the ways Kimble and council members have been discussing over the last several council meetings is the addition of a part-time paid firefighter position.

At their meeting Thursday, council members approved a job description crafted by Kimble and city attorney Tom O’Neill. Kimble told council that although the person would work less than 1,040 hours a year – or not more than 20 hours a week – she or he would need to complete the same courses full-time paid staff must take.

“Basically, what he (city attorney Tom O’Neill) and I talked about was, when hiring someone for a part-time position, they need to meet at least the minimum requirements of our paid [full-time] staff,” Kimble said. “We came up with the idea of Firefighter 1, Haz Mat Ops, CPR, they have to be an EMT just like our full-time staff because the idea is, if you go down a person, you’re lacking in service that you can provide to the community, and basically everything that’s required for a firefighter in West Virginia.”

Kimble said the person would need to complete the department’s mentoring program, too.

“If you all approve this, it’ll be up to Tom to present this,” Kimble said.

Buckhannon mayor David McCauley said rather than one part-time position, there might be a pool of part-time firefighters from which to select.

“It could be a pool of people,” he said. “It’s just another tool in the toolbox. If you’re short-staffed, you can call somebody in to work a shift or two to get you through.”

Kimble said part-time firefighters would come in handy during holiday weekends, vacations or sick time. O’Neill said council could approve the position description Thursday and it would then be ready for advertisement as the need arose.

“You’ll still need to go through the Home Rule process,” O’Neill said.

The job description says the post will be a part-time, non-civil service position that will “provide supplemental coverage” for the BFD during “high-demand periods such as community events, low volunteer staffing times, fire prevention presentations, public service requests” or other times.

If hired, the candidate would be required to train a minimum of 10 hours a month “in a course of training to be established by the shift officer or fire chief,” according to the job description. The person must be able to work overnight, weekends and evenings up to but not more than 1,040 hours in a calendar year (or 20 hours a week).

“It’s my recommendation, council, that we approve this,” McCauley said. “It’s just the first of several steps. We’ve got a few hoops to jump through before we could actually implement this. I think it’s a terrific extra tool in the fire department’s toolbox.”

Councilman CJ Rylands made a motion to approve the position description, which was seconded by city recorder Randy Sanders.

However, councilman Robbie Skinner said it would be wise to wait until the city hears whether the fire department has been awarded the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response – or SAFER – grant. According to a previous story, should it be awarded to the city, the SAFER grant would provide $669,902.55 over three years for three additional firefighters, and would cover salary, benefits, turnout gear and training for the Firefighter 1 course.

Council instructed city grant writer Callie Cronin Sams to apply for the grant in March 2019. City officials will likely find out if Buckhannon has been awarded the grant this month.

“It’s my belief that we should just see where we are with the SAFER grant before we go down this road because the SAFER grant will award us [funding for] three firefighters,” Skinner said. “Our minimum staffing requirement will be met with two. If we have three, to me, that solves a lot of our issues, and this kind of becomes a little obsolete, but those are just my thoughts on it.”

“If we were awarded the SAFER grant and if we choose to accept the SAFER grant, would be still be looking at this as a potential?” Skinner asked Kimble.

“Probably not,” Kimble replied. However, the fire chief said he could envision a part-time person handling the paperwork involved in the department’s accreditation process.

“I think we should wait to see what happens with that before we make any decisions moving forward because then we would be looking at a couple different scenarios,” Skinner added.

But McCauley said city officials couldn’t be certain they will secure SAFER grant funds.

“I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that we’re going to get the SAFER grant,” McCauley said. “Second, if we have the opportunity, council would still have to approve a financial model to make that work … and at this very moment, that’s a substantial assumption. We’ve got to put the dollars and cents to this. It basically is calling for a model to expend some of the sales tax money we haven’t even begun to collect yet. We do not have this in this current fiscal year budget.”

In essence, the SAFER grant would pay for the training and salaries of three full-time firefighters for three years; after that period, the city would need to fund the positions on its own. The city has been permitted to begin collecting a 1 percent municipal sales tax Jan. 1, 2020, which it could theoretically use to fund the positions in the future.

“Ask Matt Gregory about the value Tanner Collins has brought over the past two years,” McCauley said, referencing the 2016 hiring of Collins, who is also a Division of Natural Resources police officer.

Skinner responded, “Even so, you have to offer the time to your full-time staff members before you can offer it to your part-time firefighters.”

“I’m not trying not throw a monkey wrench into this,” he added. “I’m just trying to throw out points of conversation to make sure we’re considering everything.”

McCauley said the part-time firefighter or firefighters would fill in at the chief’s discretion, and Rylands said it seemed more proactive than reactive to have the part-time position in place.

“I personally don’t have a problem moving on with it, but if the SAFER grant comes and the city has the finances to take care of it, that will alleviate a lot of our issues,” Kimble said.

The chief has previously told council he believes there need to be three paid – referred to as career as opposed to volunteer – firefighters working per shift to adequately cover the number of calls to which the department is dispatched.

The motion to approve the job description passed.

In other city news, council approved on first reading Ordinance 439, which formally adopts the Buckhannon 2025 Comprehensive Plan Planning Commission President Curtis Wilkerson presented in August.

O’Neill said a public hearing on the two-reading ordinance is scheduled prior to the beginning of the next regular city council meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 19 in city hall. The recently updated plan is accessible online at the city’s website here, and hard copies are available at city hall, 70 E. Main St.