Aug. 27--KINGWOOD -- Proposed changes in state fire code have some local volunteer fire departments -- many already hurting for volunteers -- wondering if they'll survive.
The West Virginia Fire Commission has proposed changes to fire code that call for the adoption of more than 90 National Fire Protection Association standards that firefighters said will place a financial burden on already struggling departments.
Some of the changes also affect paid departments. Included are requirements that increase the needed training and the number of responders, and set age limits for volunteers. Randy Spiker, chief of the Bruceton-Brandonville Volunteer Fire Department, said the new code would fine officers in departments that don't comply $100 a day for each standard not met. "Who's going to want to serve under those conditions? "It'd kill us," he said. James Oldaker, president of the West Virginia State Firemen's Association (WVSFA), said he attended a public hearing on the proposed changes in Charleston on Friday. About 100 were on hand to voice concerns about the changes that the state Fire Commission is to vote on Tuesday. They also require legislative approval, Oldaker said.
He said representatives of the Municipal League and the city of Charleston attended, and fire companies from around the state, and most said the changes were "too much, too soon."
The WVSFA is not opposed to safety, which is the concern behind the proposal, but "it's only going to be crippling," especially to volunteer fire companies.
Paid companies, too, would pay a price -- Oldaker said Charleston estimated increased staffing requirements would cost the city $12 million a year.
Morgantown Fire Chief Mark Caravasos said the change in fire code would mean "a huge increase in personnel and would be a huge undertaking for us." Though he's not opposed to increased safety precautions, the changes would be expensive. "I would love to see it as an administrator, but we can't afford it," he said.
Corky Thomas, chief of the Kingwood Volunteer Fire Department, said his department would have four fewer firefighters -- including himself -- if the code is changed to eliminate firefighters over age 60, and that's four of the five available to respond to day shift calls.
"Every part of the proposed changes would cost the department money," Thomas said. "We already have a hard time getting and keeping volunteers. We need the training, and the equipment has to be maintained -- we're not against safety, but small departments can't afford it."
Nearly every department in Preston County would lose personnel if an age limit is imposed, he said.
The code changes also call for annual physicals for firefighters, which Oldaker said would include "cardio and respiratory stress tests, not just turn your head and cough." He estimated the cost to volunteer fire departments would be $250 to $500 per firefighter.
The changes were proposed, he said, "because there seems to be a perceived opinion that West Virginia has a rampant, out of control firefighter injury and fatality rate," he said. "That's not true -- it's actually below the national curve." He proposed that the changes be put into effect at "a little at a time."
"I'm hoping they'll get reasonable," he said.
Bill Larew, a Newburg volunteer firefighter and NVFD treasurer, said he believes the Fire Commission is "living in an alternate universe."
Departments are struggling to get volunteers now who can commit to the hours of training required and they want to increase it, he said. And if departments close, "people are going to see their insurance premiums go out of sight.
"If they want to eliminate volunteer fire departments, why don't they just do it instead of bleeding us to death?"
Bob Brookover, president of the Monongalia County Firemen's Association, said he's "opposed to the whole thing" and sent a letter to the Fire Commission telling them so.
"You're going to have trouble keeping the people you've got, let alone get new members," he said, adding that people aren't considering all the repurcussions, should the changes be approved.