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Wilson County is starting a funding study and fire district overview of the 16 volunteer fire departments serving residents and property owners in rural fire districts.
Gordon Deno, the county’s emergency management director, said the contract for the study was signed and sent back Wednesday.
“We are contracting with a company to do a study here in the county to look at our volunteer fire protection and which direction do we need to move in the future,” Deno said. “We are looking at the funding sources. We’re making sure that our districts are adequate and that we are providing the best protection we can provide. And of course they are going to be looking at the county contract just to make sure that the county and the fire departments are protecting the way they need to be through that contractual agreement.”
Management Solutions for Emergency Services, based in Greenville, South Carolina, will perform the work over the next several months for a contract price of $23,750. The company is made up of retired fire chiefs, firefighters and retired North Carolina Office of State Fire Marshal members.
“Funding is becoming an issue, as is personnel, so those are the two top problems that we have in the fire service on the volunteer side,” Deno said.
The process is expected to take the next several months.
“We have been sending them information that they need to put this together,” Deno said. “We haven’t set up the first round of meetings yet.”
“This is something that we wanted to do two years ago,” Deno said. “At that time, the office of the state fire marshal had personnel in place to do that just for counties and municipalities. It was at no charge other than covering costs if it required hotel stays and things like that, but when the new insurance commissioner took over, he got rid of the people who did that, so we had to seek external resources for that. We went from free to close to $25,000.”
Deno said the study is needed.
“We have 16 volunteer fire departments, and we need people to come in and look and help us determine the best way to go,” Deno said. “I don’t know what direction they will go or what recommendations they will present to the commissioners. Ultimately, it is up to the commissioners in how they move forward in the future.”
Deno said there is a “huge disparity” in the volunteer fire departments’ budgets.
“The Bakertown Volunteer Fire Department, which covers the far east side of the county, they survive on less than $70,000 a year, and then East Nash Volunteer Fire Department gets over $300,000 per year,” Deno said.
Wilson’s rural volunteer fire departments work in rural fire protection districts, which means each fire department has a specific district with a specific tax rate.
“Each rural fire protection district is allowed to go to 15 cents per $100 in valuation in their tax rates,” Deno said. “Right now, Stantonsburg-Moyton Fire Department is at 15 cents per $100. They cannot raise their tax rate anymore. Thus, they cannot increase their budget anymore. Funding is becoming an issue for some of the fire departments. We have several that are over 10 cents right now.”
Fire trucks and equipment are expensive.
“The tax money doesn’t come from homes and farmlands, which is evidenced by Bakertown and Stantonsburg-Moyton,” Deno said. “Because all they have is mom-and-pop stores and farmland and houses. That is not where your revenue is built from. It’s commercial properties, and if you don’t have commercial properties, they don’t have a very large revenue stream coming in. That is one of the things that is included in the survey.”
East Nash VFD has a couple large manufacturing facilities within its jurisdiction. The Toisnot Rural Fire Department has Bridgestone in its fire district. Contentnea has Merck
Several rural fire departments in Wilson County have hired part-time firefighters on an hourly basis to staff their stations during the day.
“The main reason for doing all of this, volunteerism across the country is dropping. It affects each individual fire department differently on different days,” Deno said.
“For instance, the Rock Ridge Volunteer Fire Department may have enough people right now today to respond to any call in their district, but tomorrow they may not depending on people’s work schedules. The same thing with Black Creek, the same thing with Contentnea, with Elm City, with Sims, with any of them.”
The Black Creek VFD has hired personnel to work 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays using different personnel each day depending on who’s available.
Other fire departments — including East Nash, Kenly and Sharpsburg — are doing the same thing. Crossroads is getting ready to go through that same process.
The personnel those departments have hired are full-time firefighters in other jurisdictions and work part-time shifts as their schedules allow.
Most of the departments, though, are 100% volunteer, including Sims, Bakertown, Sanoca, Stantonsburg-Moyton and Rock Ridge.
“Volunteer fire service is not just volunteering to go respond to calls. It’s training. It’s maintenance on equipment. It’s working around the station to keep the station looking like it does. The average volunteer firefighter in the county right now is averaging over 200 hours of training per year,” Deno said. “That’s a lot of training for a volunteer. A lot of people get into it and then they realize ‘Wow, that’s a lot of training’ and they just can’t manage that. It’s not the fact that people don’t necessarily want to step up. It’s the fact that once they get in there and realize how much training is involved and what has to be done, they can’t commit that much time.”
For several years, three fire departments have been dispatched to any Wilson County structure fire call.
“That is to ensure that we have adequate manpower on scene,” Deno said. “It takes about 14 people on scene to adequately begin dealing with an active structure fire. You have to have a lot of folks. It is a very strenuous business and it takes a lot of people to manage.”
The budgets for the 16 departments that serve Wilson County total $2.14 million. The city of Wilson has five stations and about 100 career firefighters with a budget of $9 million a year.