BUCKHANNON – In the wake of a devastating Pocahontas Street fire in which one woman suffered severe burns and three firefighters on scene were injured – one seriously – city officials on Thursday discussed how to address a countywide shortage of paid and volunteer firefighters.
At Buckhannon City Council’s Dec. 1 meeting, city fire chief J.B. Kimble painted a picture of how serious the early morning residential fire Nov. 27 at 172 Pocahontas Street was – and how much worse it could have been.
Kimble told council the call came in at 6:50 a.m., just 10 minutes before 7 a.m., when the once-a-day shift change at the Buckhannon Fire Department takes place. Because the blaze occurred so close to that shift change – city firefighters work 24-hour shifts – that enabled six paid firefighters to respond directly from the fire department, as opposed to the normal three.
The house went up in flames quickly, and it was a fire with entrapment, meaning one of the three people inside the house at the time was unable to escape on her own.
“The training, the teamwork, all came about at that fire,” Kimble said. “If we wouldn’t have been at shift change, and that had been a three-person crew, we’d be having a whole different discussion right now. We had six people in that firehouse at that time when that call came in, and four went in the engine, two went in the ladder [truck], and then I arrived.”
Kimble said that Capt. Joey Baxa, who rescued the woman trapped inside, made the decision to give her his mask, or self-contained breathing apparatus, after attempts to safely remove her from the porch roof of the residence were thwarted due to the ladders thrown up against the house becoming electrified, shocking both Baxa and the victim.
“Joey removed his self-contained breathing apparatus. We wear those, and that is breathing air – that is not oxygen because pure oxygen is flammable, so don’t get that confused,” Kimble explained. “Joey removed his face piece, put it on the victim and went back through what he had just come up through.”
“That first 10 minutes, until we got her out of that house, was very, very high risk, and I want to make the statement that Joey Baxa would have given his life for her and so would have everybody else there,” Kimble said.
Baxa was hospitalized overnight in the critical care unit of St. Joseph’s Hospital and suffered pulmonary injuries; he is off work until at least Dec. 14. Two other firefighters who suffered smoke inhalation were able to recover at home.
The Nov. 27 blaze was one of six structure fires that BFD had responded to within a string of 11 days, Kimble said, although two of the 11 occurred in neighboring counties.
“We’ve been talking back and forth with other agencies and other entities about the need for additional people, whether it be volunteer or career, and we have tried recruiting, we’ve tried retention, but the Buckhannon Fire Department has not received an application for the volunteer fire department for two years,” he said. “We’re in fear that this is a kind of a culture, a generational gap, and people are not into volunteering anymore.”
Kimble said as a whole, the city and county fire departments are not able to adhere to the national standard of deploying 15 firefighters to the scene of a structure fire within nine minutes, a standard set by the National Fire Protection Association. After every major fire that the department responds to, there is a “hot wash,” in which personnel share “what went right and what went wrong,” Kimble said.
“In every form I’ve written up after major fires, the initial staffing is a major concern every time,” he said. “To get to the 15 people that it takes to do the critical parts of fighting fire was 23 minutes at this incident. The national standard is nine minutes, so we’re still way behind. Capt. Baxa got injured, Firefighter First Class John Brugnoli got injured, Steve Michaels, Firefighter First Class, got injured, and we had a firefighter twist his ankle. This was a high-intensity operation, and it happened fast.”
“I think until you’ve been there in that first five or 10 minutes, you hear about it, but you’ve never visually seen it, and the need for more firefighters, whether it’s career or volunteer, it is horrible right now,” Kimble added. “We have gotten worse.”
The city fire chief said he believes Upshur County is short about 30-40 firefighters now.
“How do you make that up?” he asked. “And I’m not standing up here pounding my chest that we need to hire people and hire people and hire people, but we have to do something, and we have to work together as a community to come up with a solution for this because this could have had a very different and a horrible ending – it’s already bad enough.”
Councilman David McCauley observed that there are multiple issues in the world that “the government can’t buy its way out of.”
“But what is that magic number [of paid firefighters]?” McCauley asked. “You say we’re 40 firefighters down throughout the county. If Buckhannon were to add four or five six new firefighters, would that have made a difference if you had that extra person on a shift? And then we get into other issues like how do you pay for it? We have to talk first due [fee].”
Kimble said finding a solution must be a collaborative effort.
“It has to be a group effort,” he replied. “If we can’t create a group effort, then we have to take care of ourselves. I was just looking at the statistics in the firehouse, and last year, 74 percent of calls outside of Buckhannon’s district are answered by two or less people. That’s scary. In today’s world, nobody should be going to an incident by themselves, period. It’s just not acceptable.”
Councilman Jack Reger said he agreed with McCauley about exploring a first-due fee – a fee that would apply to residents and businesses that are outside city limits but still within the BFD’s area of responsibility.
“I’m in agreement with McCauley that we need to start considering first due and trying to find some means to support our firemen and to expand our services if we can, to serve the community,” Reger said. “That includes not just Buckhannon but the whole county, and I think that that needs to be on the table.”
Mayor Robbie Skinner, who previously opposed implementing a first-due fee, said he is now willing to consider it.
“When we brought on three additional firefighters, I know the first due conversation was tossed around, and ultimately we decided not to, and I know that a large part of that was because of me,” Skinner said. “I wasn’t comfortable with it at the time, but I will tell the council I’m open to that discussion as we look at bringing on additional firefighters because what we have right now as far as a total picture of firefighter response in our county is not working.”