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Buckhannon Fire Chief J.B. Kimble addresses council in February. / My Buckhannon file photo

Councilman asks if proposed new hires would help alleviate overtime hours at the Buckhannon Fire Department

BUCKHANNON – The proposed hiring of three full-time city firefighters again sparked a heated discussion – this time between city officials themselves – at Buckhannon City Council this week when a councilperson questioned the impact those staffing additions would have on the Buckhannon Fire Department’s number of volunteers and the BFD’s percentage of paid overtime hours.

Fire chief J.B. Kimble has requested that 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 minimum safety guidelines necessary for accreditation. During budget meetings, council discussed a number of options to pay for the new hires, including implementing a first-due fire fee or working with the county commission for funding since nearly half the calls the department responds to are outside city limits.

At the March 18 council meeting, councilmen CJ Rylands and Dave Thomas suggested the city pursue funds from the recently passed American Rescue Plan, which included $200 million in grant funding for fire departments, to help fund the hire of three new firefighters. If awarded, the grant would save the city more than half a million dollars over three years.

Kimble told council Thursday that he’d learned from the International Association of Firefighters that the $200 million in SAFER grant funding was allocated for hiring back laid-off firefighters or continuing to pay firefighters who are at risk of being laid off.

“There’s no application you can even fill out – this is just additional money for cities that have fallen on hard times,” he said.

City finance and administrative director Amberle Jenkins said she had been advised by Region VII Planning & Development Council Executive Director Shane Whitehair that the SAFER grant funds could be used for new hires based on his research. (Region VII is handling several of the city’s grant applications following the resignation of information coordinator and grant writer Callie Cronin Sams in March.)

Rylands asked Kimble if he thought expanding the paid department would result in fewer numbers of 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 said. “How do you feel the new hires are going to affect your current volunteer base?”

Kimble said the new hires would likely take some of the burden of having to leave work or family gatherings off current volunteers – and that volunteers who work regular jobs will never be able to respond to fires like full-time paid staff.

“Two-thirds of my workforce are volunteers,” Kimble said. “There’s no other department in the city that has to rely on volunteers for day-to-day operations – no other department other than the fire department.”

Kimble said he’s grateful for the 15 highly trained volunteers the city department has.

“I had somebody tell me the other day, ‘Your standards are too high,’” Kimble recounted. “[My response was] thank you, that’s because we’re using best practices. [If you want me to] tell you that that 15 volunteers are going to get mad and leave because we hired three new people – that’s not going to happen.”

Rylands also asked how the three new employees would affect the fire department’s percentage of overtime.

“Last year, 37 percent of your gross payroll was overtime,” Rylands said. “Do you see [hiring three more people] being able to take that to 20 percent of the gross total?”

Kimble said he “didn’t know how that was possible” if the city expects 24/7 coverage and wants the fire department to meet the accreditation safety standards that include a two-in, two-out minimum personnel levels at fires.

“But you’re hiring three more people into the mix,” Rylands said. “You would think you can reduce the existing overtime that you have today. So, in other words, it’s not going to impact the percentage of overtime?”

Rylands pointed out that overtime in the Buckhannon Police Department is 9.6 percent of its payroll. He asked if Kimble would be willing to consider hiring the new firefighters with an understanding that they would not qualify for overtime pay until they reached 53 hours, in accordance with the Fair Labor Standards Act.

“When and if these jobs are offered, [could they be offered] with an understanding that as a new hire you would be under the overtime rules of not receiving overtime until 53 hours – do you want the job?” Rylands asked.

Kimble answered by asking council to consider that a starting firefighter in Buckhannon only makes $12 an hour.

“By the end of the year, with overtime, it’s about $38,000,” Kimble said.

But Rylands noted that the BFD’s average salary is $58,000 per year. City employees also receive a benefits package that includes a retirement contribution and health insurance.

Retired longtime city fire chief Mitch Tacy said he wanted to weigh in.

“I think you folks are missing the big picture about hiring additional firemen,” Tacy said. “When that red truck goes out the door to Pocahontas Street because 97-year-old Mrs. Smith is trapped in her house, three fireman are coming – that’s what we’re talking about. We’re talking about providing a service to Mrs. Smith, and Mrs. Smith is a hell of a lot safer and her chances of survival are a whole lot greater when that fire truck leaves immediately with three firefighters on it than with two.”

Two firefighters on a fire truck “is not a safe situation for the fire department” and “not a safe situation” for the public, Tacy said.

Rylands responded that in January and February, of the 179 incidents the fire department responded to, only six were structure fires. The fire department also assists at wrecks, EMS calls and other incidents.

“If you’re going to talk about delivery of emergency services, [that data] should be part of the conversation, not painting a picture of some 92-year-old lady burning in a fire because we’re too cheap to pay a fireman,” Rylands responded.

Kimble said those were Tacy’s words, not his, but noted it is hard to predict the frequency of fires, pointing to several recent fires around the county.

“We had seven [fires] in 13 days in the last two weeks,” Kimble replied. “Everything that we respond to, this city council voted for us to respond to in the ‘Services Provided’ document [that’s part of] our accreditation process. If there’s something in that document you want us to remove, we’ll discuss it, but it’s best practices. That is what you’re asking me to do, and this is what I’m asking you all to do.”

At that point, city recorder Randy Sanders observed that the discussion had gone “way off the rails.”

“This started as a report of the activities for the past month,” Sanders said. “I can only speak for myself, but I’m committed to finding a way to hire three new firemen. That’s what we’ve talked about, that’s what we’ve committed to. I appreciate councilman Rylands looking at the financial aspects of everything, and I appreciate your consideration of sitting down and looking at the overtime situation, constantly reviewing that, and I think that’s something that we should always do [as our] fiduciary responsibility.”

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