Banks District EMS Director John Roby, president of the Upshur County Firefighters Association, speaks at the association's May 25 meeting. / Photo by Monica Zalaznik

City fire department pulls out of firefighters association until legal matter is sorted out

BUCKHANNON – The Buckhannon Fire Department has stepped back from the Upshur County Firefighters Association, opting to take a supportive role after questions were raised about the legality of the organization.

At its monthly meeting Wednesday, May 25, the Upshur County Firefighters Association nominated two new people for positions that were vacated after the Buckhannon Fire Department – the only department in the county staffed with paid firefighters – was advised to step back and take on a supportive role in the association.

The firefighters association discussed replacing Capt. Brian Elmore of the Buckhannon Fire Department with Banks District Volunteer Fire Department firefighter Steve Linger. Additionally, the association opted to replace Buckhannon chief JB Kimble, the firefighters association’s secretary/treasurer, with Debra Roby, a member of the Banks District department.

The Buckhannon Fire Department sent a letter to the association, saying they have decided to take a supportive role but will no longer hold positions in the association or vote on issues that arise. Kimble said members of their department will still attend meetings and participate when they discuss their department.

The change was made after the association started evaluating West Virginia Code after the Upshur County Commission questioned the organization’s legal status. At the association’s April 21 meeting, association members maintained that they were a legitimate, legally formed association. However, there were questions about the Buckhannon Fire Department’s membership, given that it is a combination fire department – i.e., comprised of both paid staff and volunteers.

Upshur County Firefighters Association vice president Joe Carrico read aloud a part of the state code applicable to the city fire department.

“What I read in the code was, ‘upon the creation of a fire association, any full-time paid fire department located in a municipality, as defined in Section 9, Article 15, Chapter 8 of this code is excluded from the provisions of this article,'” he said. “What I understand that to mean is the Buckhannon City Fire Department, as a paid fire department, cannot be a member of the association, but I don’t think that prohibits any volunteer member [of the BFD] from being a member [of the Upshur County Firefighters Association].”

The question is further complicated because the city’s paid firefighters are also members of the volunteer wing of the department.

Kimble said the Buckhannon Fire Department made the decision to officially withdraw after city attorney Tom O’Neill made the recommendation to take a supportive role.

“The recommendations from him and a few others in our administration were to just be in a supportive role for now until we figure out what’s going on,” Kimble said. “We took a step back, basically stating we will be there in a supportive role. We will attend meetings, but we won’t be on any appointments and we won’t make any votes or any motions until things are figured out.”

The issue originally surfaced when the Upshur County Firefighters Association decided to form an exploratory committee to address the countywide shortage of manpower and “critical” ongoing issues in the fire service. The firefighters association wanted that committee to consist of two private citizens, two business representatives and two elected officials – one from the county commission and one from Buckhannon City Council, according to a previous story. When it was the county’s turn to nominate a representative, commissioners tabled the agenda item after commissioner Terry Cutright and Upshur County Prosecuting Attorney Bryan Hinkle expressed uncertainty about the legality of the association.

At the association’s May 25 meeting, association president John Roby said he believed volunteer members of the Buckhannon department should be allowed to participate.

“This association was created for seven departments — not six,” Roby said. “You still have volunteers in your department, and if you read [state code], it says you guys are a combination fire department,” Roby said. “We’ve created [the firefighters association] under seven departments; Buckhannon Fire Department should be in this, and I’m going fight, fight, fight. I realize you guys are here and I appreciate you still coming here to give your opinion, but you guys are part of us in this county.”

Roby said that completely removing the Buckhannon Fire Department from the association could have long-lasting consequences. There are seven fire departments in Upshur County, and the Buckhannon Fire Department is the only combination fire department, meaning the city department has both paid staff and volunteers; the other six departments are comprised entirely of volunteers.

“If we don’t fix this, then we have to change our model; we have to redo everything to six departments, and that’s going bring up another can of worms for the fire fee,” Roby said. “That’s why we’re trying to fix this.”

He also said he has spoken with commissioner Sam Nolte and other members of the association have spoken to commission president Kristie Tenney, and he is hopeful for the future.

“I’m hoping they’re going to get on board here, which it sounds like they are,” Roby said. “I think it was just the wrong approach in the beginning. I think I did a couple of things wrong, and I’ll tell everybody here, I think the first thing we brought up was paid fireman and it scared everybody. We have people’s ears; I’ve talked to Sam, you’ve talked to Kristie, and I think eyes are open now that there is a problem with staffing. In 17 years, we’ve never gotten everybody together to say we have an issue.”

The Upshur County Firefighters Association meets every last Wednesday of the month at the Public Safety Complex at 7 p.m.

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