Maria Potter, the City of Buckhannon's first career firefighter, addressed the Rotary Club of Buckhannon-Upshur Tuesday. / Photo by Monica Zalaznik

Learn how the City of Buckhannon’s first paid female firefighter found her career path

BUCKHANNON – The first paid female firefighter at the Buckhannon Fire Department discussed her background and duties during a Rotary Club of Buckhannon-Upshur meeting.

Career firefighter Maria Potter attended the Oct. 18 Rotary Club meeting to discuss several programs the department is working on and the services they provide.

“I graduated from [West Virginia] Wesleyan [College] with an undergraduate degree in exercise science, went to Davis and Elkins college and got my associate degree in Nursing and was an RN for 10 years and in 2008, I graduated college, took an EMT class and from there it shifted my studies from exercise science more to emergency services,” Potter said. “I volunteered from 2008 to roughly 2012 in the emergency squad as an EMT paramedic and joined the fire department. I did the nursing thing and when COVID hit, things got stressful, and I had to give it up to God and say, ‘Hold this and guide me in the right direction and the opportunity at the fire department came up, so that’s how I landed there.'”

She explained the Buckhannon Fire Department is a combination department, meaning it employs full-time career firefighters but also has volunteer staff.

“We’re the only paid department in the county; we have eight full-time staff, and we’re supposed to have nine but we’re currently in the hiring process for the other full-time staff,” Potter said. “I believe the applications are due next week. We work 24-hour shifts, and we have a full-time chief that works Monday through Friday, but also comes in on calls nights and weekends. As with everywhere in the state and in the nation, our volunteer population is dwindling. We’re down to about 10.”

The Buckhannon Fire Department covers about 52 square miles and serves 15 to 16,000 citizens.

“We average roughly 1,300 calls per year; we’re up to 985 as of this morning and a majority of them are EMS calls,” Potter said. “We are a fire department but that’s probably the fewest calls that we run in the year are actual fires. The majority of calls are EMS, followed by car wrecks, miscellaneous fires, and house fires. Within the last couple of years, we got registered with the State Office of EMS as a rapid response agency, so when we run EMS calls, we do carry some medications.”

Some of the calls they respond to include difficulty breathing, diabetic emergencies, unresponsive patients and trauma-related incidents.

“Back in February, we got a brand-new engine that was roughly half a million dollars, just the engine adds another $125,000 worth of equipment,” Potter said. “That puts us up to a grand total of three engines and a 100-foot ladder truck.”

Potter also discussed her involvement with the community’s HeartSafe Committee.

“This increases community access to AEDs (Automated External Defibrillators), the defibrillators. Bystanders are what made cardiac arrests saveable; us getting there with our fancy lights and fancy trucks is great and everything, but 10 minutes is all the heart can fibrillate max,” Potter said. “The call comes into 911 and when you get out of bed, you’re already wasting precious time. That being said, through donations, we’ve put AEDs in five strategic locations throughout the town.”

Potter said October is typically very busy for the Buckhannon Fire Department.

“It was Fire Prevention Week last week, so we’ve been in the schools all last week and some this week. The theme this year is ‘Fire Won’t Wait, Plan Your Escape,”’ Potter said. “Several years ago, you had 30 minutes once your room caught on fire before the whole thing’s on fire.”

Today, though, that’s changed, she said.

“Nowadays, we have five to seven minutes before that whole roof is on fire, most furniture and [building materials] for houses are made of synthetics, so instead of just white smoke from cotton and wood, we have black smoke on your furniture and stuff, so that smoke becomes fuel,” Potter explained. “What I’m saying is we have to be a lot faster, and the fires are more intense, so fire prevention was a big thing.”

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