Pictured, from left, are Brian Zickefoose and Upshur County Firefighters Association president John Roby at last week's association meeting. / Photo by Monica Zalaznik

Upshur firefighters plan to address county commissioners about manpower issue

BUCKHANNON – The Upshur County Firefighters Association intends to request an appointment with the Upshur County Commission during one of the commission’s upcoming meetings this Spring.

The Upshur County Firefighters Association met Wednesday, Jan. 26 and invited members of Buckhannon City Council and the county commission to attend and discuss the first responders’ ongoing staffing concerns throughout the county.

Upshur County Firefighters Association president John Roby, also the director of Banks District Emergency Medical Services, said he was disappointed no one from the county commission attended the meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Public Safety Complex Florida Street.

“We sent a letter to the city and to the county commission inviting them to come to this meeting, so we can discuss problems and discuss how we want to proceed with the city and the county,” Roby said. “We all have problems, and we all know that we wanted to discuss different things like the training center and whether they would help the city with the training center so we could all use it, but none of them came.”

The training center is a reference to the city fire department’s preliminary plans to construct a firefighters’ training center near the city street department/waste garage on Mud Lick Road.

Overall, Roby said the most important issue the county fire departments face is a lack of staffing.

“I had to [call out to] three departments for a cardiac arrest because of the weather, because of the size of the gentleman, and lack of manpower,” Roby said. “To respond with one person is unacceptable; does anybody think it’s okay to respond with one person?”

Buckhannon Fire Chief J.B. Kimble said it is impossible to meet certain standards countywide due to a critical shortage of staffing. Following months of contentious debate, last summer council eventually voted to hire three additional full-time firefighters to staff the Buckhannon Fire Department, bringing the number of paid firefighters up to 10 in the county, including Kimble.

However, the county’s other six departments rely on volunteers to staff their stations and respond quickly to emergencies in their respective communities. Those departments include Warren District Volunteer Fire Department, Washington District Volunteer Fire Company, Adrian Volunteer Fire Department, Banks District Volunteer Fire Department, Ellamore Volunteer Fire Department and Selbyville Volunteer Fire Department.

“It’s a process of learning what the standards are for emergency services and when you sit in a room, and you collect the data to show what your response entails and how many people it entails, we’re not even coming close to the minimum standards of Volunteer Fire Service,” Kimble said. “I’m talking minimum standards for rural areas: 10 people in 10 minutes. We’re not getting on scene in 10 minutes, and that’s minimum standards nationally for volunteer fire [service].”

He said responding to calls with too few staff is unacceptable because of safety concerns, especially those related to structure fires.

“We used to work shifts by ourselves at the firehouse; you could go on calls by yourself, but I don’t want to be in that game anymore. It’s not right, and it’s not safe,” Kimble said. “People are out there with guns – guns and weapons, all types of weapons, drugs, alcohol, and some people are just not mentally there – and that’s the stuff we’re dealing with nowadays.”

He also noted the departments aren’t attracting enough young recruits or volunteers.

“I’m glad to see the city council represented here,” Kimble said. “I wish the county was here – maybe they had a conflict of calendars or something, I don’t know – but we need to get all our community leaders in a room to discuss the future of the fire service because I want you to look in here … do you see 18-year-olds? Do you see 20-year-olds? Because I don’t.”

Roby asked Mayor Robbie Skinner if the county could utilize American Rescue Plan Act funds to help with staffing. Skinner said no.

“This money was a one-time shot in the arm,” Skinner replied. “There is a potential that we can receive more money, but the money that we received is not a guaranteed stream of income over and over and over again, year after year. Guidelines were put in place with that money, and they were for infrastructure improvement projects, where we had to then go out and hire contracting firms to improve upon our infrastructure.”

Skinner explained the ARPA funds are one-time distributions for constructing new or upgrading existing infrastructure, such as water distribution and sanitary sewer service utilities. He said the funds weren’t intended to be used for something continually, such as an ongoing expense like wages and salaries. 

For instance, while the commission has not received final guidelines for ARPA funding distribution, in July 2021, it agreed to provide emergency ARPA funds to assist the Hodgesville Public Service District, a one-time infrastructure improvement-related cost.

“We’re not supposed to create long-term liabilities, which would be payroll money we’re not going to receive year after year, but we are able to tackle some projects in the city where we would have otherwise had to utilize our general, water or sewage funds,” Skinner said. “That has freed up some money in our general fund, which we have committed to hiring three additional firefighters for the City of Buckhannon that will serve all over the county.”

He said the funds could be used for equipment, but that wouldn’t solve the manpower issue.

“We need a strategic plan to look at staffing needs throughout the county because the shiny new trucks aren’t going to do anything if there’s nobody there to use them, but we’re really having a hard time getting that conversation off the ground,” Skinner said. “We’ve had some conversations in the accreditation meetings where some of the county representatives have said none of the fire departments in the county are coming to them and saying, ‘we need more money’ – and that’s probably true, but we haven’t talked about staffing.

“If you throw staffing into that mix, you need more money because you can’t pay somebody with what you’re getting right now,” the mayor added.

Buckhannon mayor Robbie Skinner speaks at the Jan. 26 Upshur County Firefighters Association meeting. / Photo by Monica Zalaznik.

City recorder Randy Sanders suggested Upshur Firefighters Association members ask to be placed on the Upshur County Commission’s agenda for one of their regularly scheduled weekly meetings. Those meetings typically take place at 9 a.m. Thursdays in the Commission Meeting Room on the Upshur County Courthouse Annex’s third floor.

“I would recommend going through the regular procedure because multiple times I have called for a meeting [with county officials] during city council, when we discussed hiring the firefighters, and have asked the media to hold the county commissioners responsible and the city responsible – hold both our feet to the fire and have a meeting,” Sanders said. “We have not had a meeting, so I think you should ask to be placed on their agenda, go to their meeting and ask at their meeting.”

The association agreed to request placement on the Upshur County Commission’s agenda in April.

“I’m not a huge meeting person either, but at some point, we need to ask them for representation on a committee to look into the priorities of the fire and emergency services,” Kimble said. “We need to at least get a voice in a committee from a county commission representative, a city council representative, a couple fire associations and somebody from the public to sit down and create priorities – what does the community expect from us?”

The association agreed to meet again in March to discuss their most important requests during their meeting with commissioners in April.

Last week following Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners declined to respond to comments made at the Jan. 26 meeting.

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