Guest Essays, Letters to the Editor, Opinion

Guest essay: This time, VFDs are calling for help

by G.T. Parsons

West Virginia’s volunteer firefighters place their communities above themselves, donating their time and risking their lives in the name of public safety. When people in need call, volunteer firefighters respond. Today, these selfless firefighters are calling for help.

While many volunteer fire departments (VFDs) struggle with member recruitment and operational funding, local emergency services (EMS) squads are making their needs known. Mounting problems within the VFD and EMS communities deserve the immediate attention of our government leaders.

Too many VFDs have difficulty attracting enough men and women to provide adequate fire protection in their communities. VFDs’ personnel problems started before COVID, which made matters worse. In addition, VFDs cope with rising costs and struggle to pay for fuel, equipment and training.

About 85% of the state’s 1.79 million citizens depend on more than 400 volunteer or part-volunteer fire departments. Responding to fires and other emergencies requires trained personnel, and West Virginia VFDs have seen significant membership losses.

West Virginians who live in larger communities place a high priority on fire protection. They financially support full-time, professional fire service. But here are the facts: only 11 West Virginia communities support full-time paid fire departments; 21 partly paid departments depend on volunteers. The rest of the state’s more than 400 fire departments depend on volunteers.

Travelers visiting state parks, colleges, athletic events, churches, and other destinations outside of our larger communities call volunteer fire departments in the event of accidents, fires, floods, and other calamities. Simply said, volunteer fire service is an essential part of our public-safety infrastructure.

Without question, the vast majority of West Virginians depend on volunteer fire departments. West Virginia residents and tourists who travel the more than 37,000 miles of our state roads must depend on organized, trained volunteers to respond during times of need.

VFDs are a bargain. By donating their time, volunteer firefighters deliver financial savings to the local citizens and businesses they protect. According to an April 2019 edition of Governing magazine, a Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute study estimated the annual value of volunteer firefighters in the Keystone State could be as high as $10 billion. The report’s authors, recognizing that someone must fight fires, predicted the continuing loss of volunteers would see taxpayers “face a very steep price tag.”

VFDs’ locally focused service also helps keep fire insurance premiums affordable. A lack of fire service in a specific locale can lead to longer response times and higher insurance costs. West Virginia families and businesses can realize lower insurance costs when local fire departments are fully staffed and trained.

The decline in VFD membership is not unique to West Virginia, although population loss and major shifts in the economy here have exacerbated the problem. The consequences of those troubling trends are real. Families and their property are at risk. Businesses are at risk.

Does anyone want to see station closures become an accelerating trend in West Virginia, which has seen 15 VFDs disappear during the past 20 years? Finding a solution has been a challenge here and elsewhere. West Virginia leaders have grappled with the problem, but the situation is becoming more severe. VFDs can no longer depend on ice cream socials and bingo to pay their bills.

West Virginia volunteer firefighters urge state leaders — our governor, Legislature and state fire marshal — to work together with VFDs to find a solution. Realizing growth in tax revenue, the state appears positioned to support emergency organizations that are essential to the health of our communities, citizens and businesses.

We are eager to join state leaders in gathering the facts. Using comprehensive information, we are confident we can develop well-reasoned remedies that will allow our VFDs to continue to support our communities.

G.T. Parsons, of Romney, is president of the West Virginia State Firemen’s Association.