03/21/10 — Paid service predicted by Duplin fire officials

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Paid service predicted by Duplin fire officials

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on March 21, 2010 1:50 AM

KENANSVILLE -- Volunteer fire departments are struggling with higher costs, stricter training requirements and other changes that are making it harder for them to protect lives and property.

Duplin County may have to consider moving to a paid firefighter system in the future, Rose Hill Fire Chief Clayton Herring Jr. told the Duplin County Board of Commissioners earlier this month.

"Everything's going up and we've told you in the past, and I'm telling you now, in the very near future you're going to have to have paid firemen. And that's coming," Herring said.

The departments are seeking support for a countywide quarter-cent sales tax. The proposed tax will be included on the May ballot, but commissioners were initially undecided on how to distribute the money among the county's fire stations.

After a show of support from county firefighters, the commissioners voted to distribute the money equally among the fire stations. Fire chiefs and assistant chiefs from nearly all the county's volunteer departments, including Faison, Wallace, Oak Wolf, Albertson, Calypso, Warsaw and others, appeared before the commissioners to support the measure.

However, even the additional money may not be enough to keep the departments functioning in the long term.

One reason behind the need for additional funding is the sheer number of calls volunteer departments must answer. Today's volunteers are not only putting out fires, they are also dealing with a variety of emergency situations that could directly impact the health and well-being of Duplin residents.

"Fire fighting nowadays is not just fire fighting. It never has really been just fire fighting, we do all kinds of stuff, and now with the other things going on, we do EMS, we do lift assist and driving for them, traffic control, which in some counties (the Department of Transportation) does that, we're doing it for them. Also tree removal, debris in the road, animal waste spills, we go and clean them up. And many other things, if they don't know who to call, they call the fire department," Herring said.

The sales tax increase would help cover ever-increasing expenses that bake sales, barbecue plate sales and other fundraisers simply cannot fund. The costs associated with equipping firefighters and maintaining the vehicles that get them to the scene of emergencies have nearly doubled in the last decade, Herring said.

"Why do we need the quarter-cent sales tax? Everything's getting expensive, the cost of operating a fire department, the insurance, just the insurance alone will run from $8,000 to probably $15,000 just on the men and on the trucks and buildings, and what have you. Maintenance costs are rising, truck and equipment replacement and maintenance that's high dollar, what you could buy 10 years ago for $174,000 is $300,000 or more," he said.

But even if voters choose to pass the sales tax increase this spring, paid firefighters may still be necessary in the future. Societal changes and additional regulations make it much more difficult for people to volunteer to fight fires, the chief said.

"Used to, the farmers could get off their tractors and go answer a call, people could close their businesses down, go answer calls. But that doesn't happen anymore," he said.

People in Duplin County often work out of town, and many farmers simply can't afford to spend time away from their farm during the day, Herring said. Even now, some departments have difficulty getting enough volunteers to respond to calls.

"You don't get the volunteers like you used to. Used to be, people would volunteer, but now, we live in, I guess you could call it a mobile society where you can go anywhere, anytime, and a lot of people are not volunteering. They do what they want to do," he said.

Family structures have changed as well, often making it hard for families with two parents working day jobs to have time to volunteer at night.

Training requirements are another part of volunteer fire departments that have changed significantly over the years. In the past, departments did not have such strict certification requirements, but new standards mean more hours in the classroom before a new volunteer ever goes out on an actual call.

"We're having to do a lot more training, and a different type of training. There's more to it than just fire fighting. You've got HAZMAT, confined space, high level, there's all kinds of stuff," Herring said.

"These are professional firefighters that are not getting paid. They're unpaid professionals, and they'll be treated like professionals if something happens. That's why we have to get our training."

The departments in Duplin County are also looking to the future as military development in the area creates pockets of higher population. The eastern part of the county in particular may be an area of significant population increase. In short, the departments need the additional revenue that the sales tax would provide, Herring said.

But the switch to a paid firefighter system is still coming, and it's the county's responsibility, as well as the volunteers' responsibility, to provide fire service to Duplin citizens, he said.

"Any of you have got scanners, sometimes they have fire calls and have to set it off two or three times to get people to come, and that's either because they're out of town or they can't get off work," Herring said.

County EMS Director Brian Pearce added that some counties have a mix of paid and volunteer fire departments, or combinations of paid and volunteer personnel. He also clarified that the money raised from the possible fire tax would not be used to pay a professional firefighter at any of the departments.

"This amount of money is not for that, it is for the basic needs," he said.

And, the county's adjustment several years ago to a revenue-neutral tax rate accidentally took money away from the existing countywide four cent fire tax, Northeast Volunteer Fire Department representative Ray Garris said Monday at the commissioners' second monthly meeting.

When the county took steps to keep the tax rate neutral for taxpayers, the actions cut the fire departments' tax income from four cents to 3.82 cents. The departments were shorted an amount of money that the chiefs were counting on when they last worked out a long-range budget for the departments, Garris said.

The commissioners proposed to examine that issue more in-depth during budget discussion sessions later this year.