Dr. Jeff Harvey, owner of JH Consulting, presents his findings at the Aug. 10 Upshur County Commission meeting. / Photo by Monica Zalaznik

Emergency services delivery study recommends increases to county, city fire fees

BUCKHANNON – A two-year-long study on the delivery of emergency services throughout Upshur County recommends an increase in both the city fire fee and the county fire fee.

Dr. Jeffery Harvey, owner of JH Consulting, outlined the results of the study at the Aug. 10 Upshur County Commission meeting, which members of the Buckhannon City Council also attended.

The study was spurred by discussions about how to provide the most cost-effective, efficient delivery of emergency services in the city and the county; ongoing debates about raising the county and/or city fire fee; hiring additional paid firefighters; and the city implementing a first-due fire fee, among other issues.

Councilman CJ Rylands overtly advocated for Harvey to conduct a comprehensive study in early September 2020 and by March 2021, both the City of Buckhannon and Upshur County Commission had each unanimously approved committing $10,000 to the two-year study.

Harvey presented a small snippet of the results of that study at Thursday’s meeting.  

“I have a small sampling of a lot of information, and I’m only going to be able to go over a small sampling of that small sampling I brought,” Harvey said. “Obviously, there will be a more in-depth report that everybody can look at, and if we need me to come back to present on specific matters at a later date, I’d be happy to do so.”

Harvey’s recommendations to the commission and council were broken down into three categories, including Engagement and Planning; Recruitment and Standards; and Finances (current and in the future).

At the top of the Finances recommendation, Harvey listed a recommendation to increase both the city and county fire fees.

“The fire fee has been a topic of conversation, and I think from the standpoint of what we’ve seen, there’s a recommendation to raise both the county and the city fire fees, but we would not at this point in time recommend a first-due fire fee,” Harvey said. “We need to get everybody up to at least a functional capability – a chance to survive, a chance to sustain – and I’m not saying that that conversation won’t or shouldn’t occur in the future. I think we have a lot more unmet needs in our entire, but it’s time to look at those.”

A first-due fee would apply to properties that are located within the Buckhannon Fire Department’s 54-square-mile district but outside of city limits. (Read more about how a first-due fire fee works here.)

Harvey did not recommend a specific amount by which the city fire fee or county fee should be increased but said that would need to be discussed in the future.

“I think there needs to be some good conversations about what those increases are,” Harvey said. “The other thing that needs to happen is an absolute mountain of PR [public relations] on the front end of that to explain to people what the fire fee pays for.”

Harvey said there is a misconception that fire departments only respond to fires.

“The reality is, all of our departments do a whole lot more than that, so how does that fit into the fabric of that community?” Harvey said. “What does that community want to see out of their department? How can we work that up to justify some of those funding increases? Do folks know everything those agencies do? We should also take a look at the available and allowable uses of those funds, just to see if they’re meeting the needs we actually have.”

He also asked the city and county to consider the formation of the Upshur County Department of Emergency Services, which would represent all first responders and function as a separate entity from the Upshur County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services.

“There have been a lot of conversations about what that entity would include; a lot of them that you see are an amalgam of 911 Emergency Management, typically fire inspections, sometimes EMS, oftentimes fire and training so you can see there’s a lot of different ways to tackle that particular issue,” Harvey said. “We make that recommendation knowing that such an entity would need to be funded and of course, that’s an in-depth conversation that would need to happen.”

The study determined there needs to be a defined emergency services network beyond traditional emergency service providers.

“We need to think about what we include in our emergency services network a little more holistically – actually operationalize the whole community – and think about our partners that are looking at income disparities, that are looking at homelessness, the drug implications and all that and fold them in,” Harvey said. “We’ve done that a little bit in the current update to the county’s emergency operations plan, but we still have some progress that we can make there.”

Harvey also wants to improve participation in general planning efforts.

“It doesn’t always have to be an all-hands [on deck] meeting,” Harvey said. “We can do targeted type stuff to build up into those all-hands meetings. We need to define the emergency services network, so let’s make them feel like they’re a part of the emergency services.”

The study also found the Firefighters Association may benefit by reimagining their role to also include someone who would be designated as a full-time recruiter and retention officer.

“The Firefighters Association is an all-encompassing umbrella that looks at issues related to the fire service, and I think that’s important, but I think that there’s more than just the fire service, so perhaps there’s an opportunity to look at that as more of an Emergency Services type of board, so to speak,” Harvey said.

“In terms of recruiting and retention, one of our exemplar communities empowered their fire chief’s association with a paid staff person who was their recruiting and retention person, and it went through the association – that’s an example of how we could reimagine what that body does,” he added.

The full report JH Consulting compiled will be made available to city council and the commission in about one month.  

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