August 27, 2008

City May End Aid to Volunteer Firefighters:


If a blaze erupts in an unincorporated Kanawha County town, Charleston's firefighters may no longer feel obligated to help.

Charleston Mayor Danny Jones said the city is reconsidering a mutual aid agreement in which its full-time fire department responds to calls outside city limits.

Jones said it's because he is irked about a stance taken by the West Virginia Firemen's Association, a group that represents mostly volunteer fire departments.

"We're going to start talking about whether we should be involved in responding outside the city limits to fires that volunteer guys should be responding to," Jones said. "Those are citizens who don't live in Charleston. And according to this group's legislative alert, they're bragging about beating our bill in the Legislature. I have a problem with that."

The state Firemen's Association issued a recent legislative memo to its members addressing the defeat of a bill that would have cut cities a break on unfunded police and fire pension liabilities.

The pension plans, which have a collective statewide shortfall of $659 million, were a contentious issue throughout the legislative session. The measure would have helped Charleston, which last year had an unfunded liability of $178 million.

Although the bill was passed by the Senate, it died in the House Finance Committee.

Jones was one of the most vocal proponents of the bill.

The firefighter group's newsletter set off the mayor. It stated that the bill would have generated $15.33 million for cities' pension plans while volunteer departments would have received nothing.

"We were able to stop this bill in House Finance," the memo reads.

Jones said he now wants the city to review a policy that sends firefighters outside the city to help volunteer departments battle blazes. He plans to bring the issue before city council and the fire department.

He cited a fire in the Knollwood area north of Charleston last December. According to Metro 911, an initial call for a house fire came in at 4:04 p.m., and Pinch Volunteer Fire Department, recommended for the area, was dispatched one minute later. The Malden department was put on standby at 4:12 as more calls came into Metro complaining no fire engines had made it to the scene.

The first unit to arrive was Charleston's Engine 457 at 4:27, 23 minutes after the initial call.

It then took firefighters more than an hour to keep the blaze from spreading through a wooded neighborhood.

Jones said Charleston firefighters usually respond to about three calls in neighboring unincorporated areas every year.

He said he felt insulted by the volunteer firefighters' group because it was "bragging" about killing the pension bill.

State Firemen's Association President Doug Mongold and Sam Love, a lobbyist for the group, could not be reached for comment Friday.

"I'm trying to understand why we should be responding to these calls now," Jones said. "There's a memorandum of understanding that we'll help areas of the county that need it. But typically, volunteer firefighters don't fight fires in the city of Charleston and they're not going to.

"I question the strategy of the people who want to put out a statement like this."

Jones said he didn't have a problem lending firefighters to incorporated cities.

Contact writer Jake Stump at [email protected] or 304-348- 4842.

Originally published by DAILY MAIL CAPITOL REPORTER.

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