BUCKHANNON – The Upshur County Firefighters Association representatives this week affirmed the legality of their organization after it was questioned at a recent Upshur County Commission meeting.
The association convened for their regularly scheduled April 27 meeting, where they talked about the section of West Virginia Code – essentially, the state’s Constitution – that commissioners had cited at their April 21 meeting.
John Roby, president of the Firefighters Association, and Joe Carrico, vice president, explained what had transpired since questions were raised about whether or not the organization was legally formed.
“Joe (Carrico) and I have checked into it and this organization has been here for 30-plus years,” Roby said. “Plus, I filed the updated bylaws today, at the courthouse.”
The issue surfaced after the association announced plans to assemble a special committee to look into how to combat countywide staffing shortages in the fire service. In creating the special committee, the association asked Buckhannon City Council and the Upshur County Commission to appoint a representative.
That appointment was on the agenda at the commission’s April 21 meeting; however, the appointment was tabled after commissioner Terry Cutright questioned the organization’s legality.
Roby said after examining the state code, the only issue the association may have is the Buckhannon Fire Department’s participation in the association because they are paid by a municipality. The BFD is the only paid department in the county, and they are a combined career-and-volunteer department.
Carrico quoted the section referencing paid fire departments.
“What I read in the code was, ‘upon the creation of a fire association, any full-time paid fire department located in a municipality, as defined in section 9, article 15, chapter 8 of this code is excluded from the provisions of this article,’ so what I understand that to mean is the Buckhannon City Fire Department, as a paid fire department, cannot be a member of the association but I don’t think that prohibits any volunteer member from being a member,” Carrico said.
Roby said Buckhannon Fire Chief JB Kimble is still a volunteer fire chief because the Buckhannon Fire Department is a blend of volunteer and paid firefighters.
“He still comes out after hours, so even when he’s not paid for it, he’s part of the Buckhanon Volunteer Fire Department’s roster,” Roby said, “so if he’s coming in here to join this organization, he’s coming in here as a volunteer – not paid – and that’s my argument on that.”
Director of Upshur County EMS Gloria Burr said when you are paid a salary like her or Kimble, they are paid to be ready 24/7.
“When you’re hired on a salary, we’re 24/7, regardless, so when there’s nobody out there, regardless of what we’re doing, we serve 24/7,” Burr said. “We’re paid for that technically, regardless of what we do. If we are going for our organization that we are salary-based with, we are going to be paid.”
Roby said the code could be interpreted in a variety of ways and they will need a legal opinion before moving forward.
“It depends on the reader,” Roby said. “The only thing that I see in there that’s a problem is the municipality. If that’s the case, then we’re going to have to talk to JB and we’ll probably have to put somebody in his place. I don’t think he has a problem with that; I’ve talked to him a little bit, however, and I want to be fair to him. I want to make sure I get answers from an attorney because they are a combination fire department.”
Roby and Carrico said they think the commission is confusing the code talking about the Upshur County Fire Board, which collects the county fire fee, with the Upshur County Firefighters Association. Carrico said the confusion is understandable because the section commissioners cited references both a board and a firefighters association. In fact, it seems to say county firefighters’ associations are the entities that actually appoint the county fire board.
“This whole code 7, section 7 that they’re referring to, crisscrosses between [referring to a] fire board and the firefighters association,” Carrico said. “It talks about once the fire association is formed, then they create a fire board. When I was talking to Terry (Cutright) — Sam Nolte) and Kristie (Tenney) were there too — he was reading that the members of the fire association were to be appointed by the commission, but that’s not what it says. It says members of the fire board [are appointed by the commission], which is the way we’ve always done it.”
Roby read a section from the bylaws of the Upshur County Fire Board which says members of the fire board are to be appointed by the county commission and must include one county commission representative, three members of the firefighters association, and three citizen-representatives.
“Section 1 says the Board shall consist of seven Upshur County residents appointed by the Upshur County Commission in compliance with West Virginia Code Section 6, Article 17; one member shall be a county commissioner, as selected by the Upshur County Commission; three members shall represent members of the Upshur County Firefighters Association with no more than one individual from an individual fire department; three members shall represent the citizens of Upshur County.’”
“Now, I don’t need to read any further, if you guys remember the letter I wrote when we selected Brian (Capt. Brian Elmore) for the fire board, we wrote a letter to the county commission, because they have to approve it, but we’re the one that picks up the firefighters from the association,” Roby continued.
Roby said the commission and members of the association plan to meet soon, to go over any questions.
“I know for a fact that we’re a legal organization; we have bylaws,” he said. “It’s been contested in court and decided by a judge that we were an association – that’s not a question,” Roby said. “There may be a couple of things like maybe JB’s [participation] that we need to look into but sit down and discuss that with us. Why should we have to get on an agenda and get it out there to the public? It’s going to embarrass people that shouldn’t be embarrassed. Why can’t we get along?”
Buckhannon Volunteer Fire Department member Glenn Davis said he thinks the commission was worried this new committee was only going to ask them for money.
“One of the things that’s striking me is Commissioner Cutright’s statement he made reading from the code, ‘however, no fire department or representative of a fire department, who is a member of the fire board or fire association, may apply for county funding from the county commission, except as provided for in subsection 7 or section 10 of this article,’” Davis said. “The point there is, I think he is questioning the ability of this association to apply for money.”
Davis said the association’s special committee is exploratory in nature.
“Nothing has been said about applying for money,” he said. “This committee was formed to find out a couple of things: What does the public want? What are they willing to pay for? if that question arises … but we may not even get to the point of asking for money. This is an exploratory committee. It is not about demanding or requesting money.”
The new committee was formed during the March Firefighters Association meeting to tackle ongoing manpower problems across all the Upshur County Volunteer Fire Departments.
“I have done our research, and when I pulled the data from the fire marshal’s office, we’re responding 86 percent of the time with two people or less to a call – it’s unheard of,” Roby said. “That’s unsafe, we cannot do that. That’s all I was trying to stress and again, if I come off the wrong way, I apologize, so we backed up. That’s why we decided to form this committee, to get people’s opinions and to take me out of the equation. Because I know where my heart is and I’m sure the committee will come to the same thing.”
Roby said the association may have some issues to work through, but they plan to keep operating.
“As far as the committee, and as far as the association, I will go on record saying we are legal, we’re legit,” Roby said. “We may have one little issue and we have to correct it, but we’re going to operate, and this committee is going to continue.”