Waxhaw commissioners stand with Waxhaw Volunteer Fire Department, needs more fulltime staff

Union County Weekly

Photo courtesy of WVFD.

At its May 12 meeting, the Waxhaw Board of Commissioners unanimously agreed to support Chief Rob Fitzgerald and the Waxhaw Volunteer Fire Department (WVFD) in asking Union County Board of Commissioners (UCBOC) for additional funds to hire more fulltime firefighters and Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs).

The board appointed Waxhaw Town Manager Warren Wood to work with Fitzgerald to write a letter on behalf of the board that requests an additional $134,534 to fund two fulltime firefighter/EMTs to man Station 18 at night. The letter was signed by all board members and sent to UCBOC on Monday.

Fitzgerald voiced several concerns about relying primarily on volunteers to the board last Tuesday. He said the volunteer model has “fizzled out” across the state due to training requirements and call volume.

Volunteer firefighters are required to train for 349 hours before they volunteer on staff and 192 hours for EMTs. Those hours are completed in 3-hour increments at night, according to Fitzgerald.

“Imagine how long that takes to get someone off the street and get them up to stake to be a firefighter,” he said.

Fitzgerald also pointed out the increase in call volume as another reason he needs more fulltime help. Calls have increased from 535 incidents in 2003 to 1,208 in 2014, according to the board’s letter.

Fitzgerald confirmed the WVFD currently has four full-time firefighters during weekdays and two working fulltime during the day on the weekends. The station relies solely on volunteers from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. everyday, he said.

“A lot of nights, we are fully staffed (with volunteers) at the station, but some nights we aren’t fully staffed,” he admitted to the commissioners.

He added that a lot of volunteers live outside of Waxhaw, and when the station isn’t fully staffed, volunteers have to respond from their homes.

“In the job we do, time is critical. If we respond from home to the station to pick up the truck and then head to the scene, it takes significantly longer to get a truck there and to begin mitigating the incident,” he said. “If we can have paid firefighter/EMTs at the station that can respond in a minute or so that would be a huge help – not only to us and the volunteers, but to the community as well.”

WVFD’s response time was a concern documented in a fire services assessment for Union County in April 2010 and addressed in the letter between the boards.

The assessment reads, “When units regularly fail to get out of the fire station in a timely manner because of inadequate staffing resources, the community is endangered and fire department managers have a reliability problem.”

Waxhaw BOC requested that county commissioners use WVFD’s proposed fund balance to pay for additional fulltime staff at Station 18. The letter states Union County Manager Cynthia Coto’s original 2015-16 budget recommended $134,534 in additional incentive program funding for WVFD for nighttime staff volunteers and $115,632 for two fulltime firefighters at Sub-station 27. However, the commissioners decided to keep the budget the same as last year and not fund these needs, because the UCBOC is currently funding a fire study to be finished in 2016 to understand the best way to allocate funds and provide service.

Fitzgerald said the $134,534 incentive program fund is the same amount of money needed to hire two fulltime firefighters at night.

“I’m willing to forgo the funds to have two additional fulltime firefighters/EMTs during the day, but I need staff at night,” he said.

Waxhaw BOC asked the county commissioners to respond to their request before the UCBOC public hearing on the 2015-16 budget, which was Monday, May 18. Woods spoke with Coto on Tuesday morning, and she confirmed that the UCBOC had received the letter and she would be in touch if there were any budget changes for WVFD.

“We both agreed that it was important to keep an ongoing open dialogue and a positive working relationship, so we could come up with good solutions on topics like this one and others that may come up in the future,” Wood said in an email.

If the county doesn’t fund WVFD’s additional staff needs, Waxhaw commissioners agreed at the council meeting to find funding in their budget to help fill in the gaps.

“We need to step up and do our part if Union County Board of Commissioners doesn’t,” commissioner John Hunt said.

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