By Jesse Wood
Sept. 13, 2013. This past week, Blowing Rock Fire Chief Kent Graham appeared before the Blowing Rock Town Council requesting funds for more hired help as the local volunteer firefighting force continues to decline in the number of able and willing bodies.
Graham is looking to fund three firefighting EMT positions to partner with the current staff operating the 24-hour-on and 48-hour-off shift. Currently there is only one 24-hour response person on a shift and that person is required to be a “paramedic engineer rescue technician,” Graham said on Friday afternoon.
“That one person is shift captain. At three in the morning when there is no daylight and not a lot of volunteers willing to show up, that shift captain/paramedic is captain of nothing but himself and his truck,” Graham said. “We are trying to add some boots on the ground to provide practical response coverage for medical calls, so we can roll an ambulance out immediately.”
With the lack of volunteers and extra boots on the ground, Graham said there is a potential for dropped calls when less than four people show up to a fire alarm, which could affect Blowing Rock’s fire protection response rating. He said this could lead to being put on probation by the Office of State Fire Marshall and – worst-case scenario – ultimately being no longer rated as a fire station in North Carolina.
He said that the lack of volunteer help isn’t exclusive to Blowing Rock, although he added that the demographic of the town doesn’t align with those who tend to volunteer to fight fires. While noting the quality of his current volunteers, he also mentioned the “different lifestyles and whole speed and pace of life” that conflict with being able to fight a fire at the drop of the hat.
“People can’t make as many [volunteer] calls as they used to,” Graham said, adding that a lot people now work two jobs, too.
While adding that volunteer roster struggles are a national trend, he pointed to Pender County, which he said merged several fire departments after a majority of the individual departments were penalized for non-response or dropped calls.
“It’s an urgent matter,” Graham said, adding that is presentation and request is coming at an “appropriate time.”
He said a 10-year veteran training captain recently left. Through the attrition of that person’s salary and a part-time salary line, Graham said a majority of the three positions would be funded in house.
“Add them together and we don’t quite get three entry level guys,” Graham said, adding that he was about $13,000 shy.
Council Member Dan Phillips said on Friday that the consensus of the board is that this is a situation that needs to be handled.
“We’ve got to be staffed to handle any situation that comes up, so I think we may have to be creative and do a hybrid approach maybe from a tax-cost point of view until it becomes a town department,” Phillips said.
Phillips added that he wasn’t sure what the future would hold, but the funding of these three positions would ensure at least a stopgap measure for the meantime.
“This is the first shot across the bow,” Phillips said. “We haven’t really sat down and look at it. This is something we are going to have to sit down and study.”