BUCKHANNON – Buckhannon City Council heard from members of the Buckhannon Volunteer Fire Department Thursday and learned that the addition of three additional paid firefighters is something the volunteers agree is needed in the area.
During a previous Buckhannon City Council meeting, a question was raised about how the addition of more paid firefighters might affect the volunteer ranks. In response, the volunteers sent a letter of support for adding the new paid positions and came to Thursday’s meeting to offer their support and answer any questions council had.
City council has been weighing whether or not to expand the paid department, and if so, how to fund the approximately $200,000 in annual costs. Because many calls originate outside city limits, council has been wary to place the entire cost on city residents and businesses; the options under discussion include implementing a first-due fire fee or working with the Upshur County Commission for additional funding.
Three firefighters with the Buckhannon Volunteer Fire Department appeared before Buckhannon City Council Thursday evening – Travis Dean (President of the Buckhannon Fire Department – Volunteer Staff), Glen Davis and Brian Chidester.
Davis said that during their April 8 monthly meeting, the volunteers voted unanimously to support the hiring of three additional paid staff members for the Buckhannon Fire Department. In the letter to city council, Dean noted that the additional firefighters would be a benefit for the community and pointed out that the fire department responds to medical calls, reports to car accidents, assists in hazardous material spills and much more.
Davis pointed to the fire department’s mission statement to ‘protect the lives and property of those we serve.’
“We will perform those duties with professionalism, integrity and the safety of our members being our highest priorities,” Davis said. “Our core values are professionalism, integrity, honor, brotherhood and community orientation. The bottom line is we want to do the best job we can – as volunteers or paid staff.”
Whether firefighters are volunteers or paid members, they are required to have the same classes and are treated as equal, Davis said.
“We are held to the same standards as paid staff,” he said. “Our job is to protect the people we serve – whether they live in Adrian or in the city. That is the bottom line, and we feel we can do that best and safer if we have that third guy or gal.”
Buckhannon Fire Chief J.B. Kimble has requested council expand the paid staff at the fire department so that three paid firefighters can be on duty at all times, helping them meet the safety guidelines necessary for accreditation. Councilman CJ Rylands has previously asked Kimble if he thought expanding the number of paid firefighters would result in less folks being volunteers.
“If I’m a volunteer and I’m responding in the same kind of fashion as a paid person, at some point I’m going to say, ‘Why am I doing this when this guy is getting $20 an hour, or whatever that might be?’” Rylands had asked.
On Thursday, Rylands thanked the volunteers for appearing in front of council.
“I appreciate you identifying your mission statement and that you support the hiring these people,” Rylands said. “I would hope that everything stays status quo, when and if these firemen are hired.”
Chidester said the generation today does not represent the same level of volunteerism of 10 years ago.
“We are worried about who is going to replace us, because the volunteerism is just not there,” Chidester said. “I am more excited to have paid staff, because we are both military members and we are gone two or three weeks out of the year. That is two or three weeks we are taken from the organization, and hopefully we do not have something happen in this town or community. If we had paid staff, they could be there in our absence. This community is growing – it is getting bigger – and the demands for people to assist us is needed.”
Council members voiced their appreciation for the volunteer’s service.
Davis said he and the other volunteers are working on a recruitment and retention program.
“We have to get more volunteers in,” Davis said. “It’s hard – it’s a challenge. I think the greatest thing that we have going for us is the standards we have set. We have always raised the bar a little higher. When it comes to training and performing, I need to meet the standards that my brothers and sisters are meeting.”
Davis said he and the other firefighters take honor, integrity, and brotherhood seriously.
“The bottom line is we sign on for this job because we want to help the community,” Davis said. “I do not feel, when I get home, that one of the paid guys took my spot. One of the paid guys was there to get there quicker than I was, and that is good. We see that as a plus – not a negative.”
Buckhannon City Recorder Randy Sanders asked the volunteers one thing they felt the city could do better to improve retention within the Buckhannon Volunteer Fire Department.
“What can we improve upon to keep volunteer firemen in our ranks?” Sanders asked.
The representatives said that is what they are asking themselves right at this moment as well.
“I have been doing some studies on recruitment and retention,” Davis said. “From our perspective, recognition is something firefighters say they do not want – but thank them anyway. They will hear that and you can never unsay the words, ‘Thank you.’”
Davis said the department works to get their members trained as quickly as possible.
“That is one of the biggest problems we face with new recruits,” Davis said. “When they walk in the door, their eyes are full of excitement. They want to get out of the door on that first call and they want to be part of that team. One of our goals is to get them trained as quickly as possible and get them out the door on their first burn.”
In order to accomplish that goal, Davis would like to see a training facility in Buckhannon.
“It makes a difference. We lose folks when we are waiting for openings in the state for training,” Davis said.
Other ideas for recognition include reward banquets or picnics.
“Little things – it does not have to cost a lot of money, but a thank you goes a long way,” he said.
Rylands said a picnic could be something to initiate this year.
“We have had brief discussion of a training center,” he added. “We have some space now, and it depends on what you need.”
Councilwoman Pamela Bucklew asked about the average age of a volunteer in the fire department, and Davis said the average age of a volunteer right now is in their 30s and 40s.
Chidester noted that most members are young and being paid, or older and are volunteering.
Another item they are looking into with regards to retention is working with local employers.
“When we were younger, our bosses let us go to fight fires while we were at work,” Davis said. “We need to get with the employers and help them recognize the importance of an hour or two a week. We need to get those people back to work quickly and respect those employers who let their employees off to respond to calls.”
Bucklew also suggested getting a junior volunteer program to get younger folks interested in volunteering and the fire service.
Buckhannon City Council is expected to discuss the issue further during a special meeting Monday night.