BUCKHANNON — Many community members may wonder what the fire fees they pay annually or monthly actually do for them. Upon meeting with Rick Harlow, the Fire Chief of Adrian Volunteer Fire Department, President of the Firefighter Association and Upshur County Fire Board Member, the explanation of fire fees became very clear what a crucial purpose they serve.
The Upshur County Fire Board enlists three community representatives, three fire service representatives and one Upshur County Commissioner. Volunteer firefighters are just that – volunteers, and most people do not realize what all they do for the community, totally at will.
Twenty years ago, Upshur County imposed fire fees on homeowners throughout the county. Prior to that, there were no fire fees. The volunteer departments got minimal funding on the state level and therefore each department only had one truck. Many people wonder where the money goes from the fire fees, and Harlow was happy to explain this for the community.
Volunteer Fire Departments respond to residential and commercial fires, brush fires, vehicle fires, motor vehicle accidents and alarm investigations. VFD organizations also act in response to calls of chest pains, shortness of breath, seizures, strokes, choking, falls, lift assistance and trauma of any kind. Volunteer firefighters also conduct traffic control, search and rescue operations, remove downed trees from roadways, respond to downed power lines, investigate internal and external gas leaks, and respond to odor investigations, to promote the safety of the community.
Understanding what these selfless men and women do in service to the entire Upshur County community and totally at will, creates a better understanding of why fire fees are necessary. Equipment to do the job is absolutely fundamental and that is where fire fees come into action for the basics of each department. Fire fee allotment is only allocated for certain goods, and a very strict audit process is conducted for the expenditures of the fire fee monies.
When a VFD is investing fire fees, they can only spend the funds on limited facets, which include building or truck maintenance, equipment testing, truck payments, insurance, workman’s compensation, fuel and personal protective equipment. “Usage of the fire fees follows the same state insurance guidelines,” according to Harlow. “There are only about 12 to 13 things you can spend it on, like radios, things that you can use on the fire ground. You can’t buy hats or t-shirts,” explained Harlow. There are checks and balances of all the fire fees. “A volunteer fireman cannot be paid. There is some misconception on that; some people think they can be paid, but they cannot,” furthered Harlow.
On average, the county collects $240,000 annually on the fire fees, and of that money, $30,000 has to stay in a fire fee account managed by the Upshur County Fire Board. The money left from the collected fees is split between all the fire departments, which typically amounts to $25,000 per year. Harlow reported that many of the fire departments will use the monies for different things. For example, he reported that the Adrian VFD uses their money solely for the truck payment.
“Twenty years ago, before the fire fees were enacted, most of the departments only ran on fires and car wrecks,” according to Harlow. Now, departments are dispatched to basically every emergency. “Living in the rural areas of Upshur County, many of the volunteers can dispatch and be on scene before EMS, and if we don’t go, someone could die,” explained Harlow. Many of the volunteer firefighters are also emergency medical responders or emergency medical technicians, and all are first aid and CPR certified, or certified to give oxygen. There is no requirement for the volunteer organizations to respond to emergency medical calls, but they willingly go and provide service to those in need.
On average, fire truck costs can be astronomical, and therefore, many of the companies have gone to purchasing older model trucks that meet the necessary requirements. The cost of a new engine truck with no equipment can cost anywhere from $250-350,000. A new tanker or rescue engine cost even more, upwards of $400,000. These costs only include the truck, not the equipment needed for rescue services or putting out a fire.
Equipment expenses are also very costly. A truck is required to carry four air packs, which cost $25,000, according to Harlow. Buckhannon Fire Department has a fill station that most of the volunteer organizations use to refill their tanks. Banks District VFD also has a fill station. The personal protective suits firefighters wear costs roughly $3,500 per person and have to be replaced every 10 years per code. Harlow emphasized that budgeting is key to VFD organizations.
Currently, fire fees are assessed annually throughout the county. Persons living inside the Buckhannon city limits are assessed a monthly fee that comes on their water bill. Essential services provided via local government are water service, sewage service, garbage pick-up, police protection, and fire and EMS.
Harlow reported that insurance agents assess homeowners’ coverage costs based on how far the residence is from the nearest fire department, in addition to ratings of the department for response times, equipment, manpower, and where the water is pulled from to fight fires. “Everyone that owns a house in the county, not the city limits, pays a flat rate. A piece of land with no dwelling is a $5 fee. A house, no matter the size, is $25 a year fee, and a commercial business is $50. The three fees charged by the county,” according to Harlow.
Many people have an emotional tie to the volunteer fire departments in their community because a family member may have been saved by their response, a house fire that they were able to put out, or a tree down in the road that volunteers removed so they could get to work. Whatever the feeling is toward VFD organizations, what they do in sacrifice is totally at will and in service to the community. Police officers, EMS workers and state road workers all get paid when they show up on the scene of an accident, but volunteer firefighters receive no compensation. VFD’s typically show up first and are often the last to leave, completely in service to their community, so please consider how crucial fire fees are to Upshur County.