How local fire departments keep residents safe in changing times

WHO YOU GONNA CALL: Leicester Fire Department medical and fire service, protecting people in parts of three counties around the clock. Chief Chris Brown, in white, commands the growing department and works with a board of directors to manage the finances and policies that govern the part paid, part volunteer department. Photo by Cindy Kunst
WHO YOU GONNA CALL: Leicester Fire Department medical and fire service, protecting people in parts of three counties around the clock. Chief Chris Brown, in white, commands the growing department and works with a board of directors to manage the finances and policies that govern the part paid, part volunteer department. Photo by Cindy Kunst

When Ben Franklin helped assemble the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia in 1736, it was a small, private “benevolent society.” Each of the 30 or so men had to provide leather buckets for carrying water and linen bags for saving property at his own expense. Boston, a smaller city, already had paid firefighters. But the Union Fire Company was among the first privately formed, volunteer groups to provide public fire protection and education, regardless of whether the beneficiaries paid for it. And for nearly a century, the organization provided a valuable service to its community, alongside a handful of similar groups.

Vestiges of that way of thinking persist even today, but the rapid pace of development has local volunteer fire departments scrambling to keep up. Except for the Asheville Fire Department, all such organizations in Buncombe County use at least some volunteers. But over the last quarter-century, the trend has been toward relying more and more on paid emergency workers.

Still, most local fire departments are not arms of government but private nonprofits that provide a public service to special tax districts. And while this model may foster innovation and is often remarkably efficient in its use of public funds, there are trade-offs in terms of oversight, transparency and ethical standards.

Training wheels

Leicester’s story typifies the trends playing out around the county these days. After many years as an all-volunteer organization, the Leicester Volunteer Fire Department hired its first paid firefighter in the mid-1990s, says Chief Chris Brown. Two decades later, there are 16 full-time employees, plus 20 part-timers and 18 volunteers.

Over the last 10 fiscal years, annual revenue has more than doubled, and expenses have nearly doubled, while the fire tax rate that supports the operation has increased by 40 percent. Meanwhile, Leicester has built two new substations and is planning to replace its 39-year-old main station.

The Fairview Volunteer Fire Department has seen a similar transformation, notes Chief Scott Jones. When he started 26 years ago, Jones recalls, veteran volunteers trained newer recruits. Two paid firefighters covered the day shifts while most of their colleagues worked other jobs; volunteers did everything else. Skyland Fire & Rescue, the largest of the nonmunicipal departments in Buncombe County, hired firefighters in the 1970s but relied mostly on volunteers until much more recently.

Now, however, over 700 hours of formal training are required to qualify for a job in the fire service. And though volunteers can start out untrained, Jones explains, the department trains each recruit as the schedule allows. “That’s the hard part,” he concedes. “If you volunteer, you’ve still got to go through the same amount of training as our paid staff.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, volunteers are much harder to come by these days. Jones says his department has gone from 35 or 40 volunteers to its current crew of 10 to 15. Over in Leicester, Chief Brown says he’s fortunate to have more volunteers than many other departments, but “there are so many requirements, and with people having to work, they just can’t keep up with it.”

Although some volunteers see their service as a step toward a career in emergency services, he continues, many simply want to help their neighbors and community, and those folks may find it particularly difficult to set aside the time for training.

Growing pains

Factor in a growing population and a new construction boom, and it’s easy to see why fire department workloads are increasing. To offset the shrinking volunteer pool, most of the responsibility for saving lives and protecting property now falls on paid firefighters and emergency medical personnel.

And even though the lion’s share of their budgets goes toward wages, salaries and benefits, these departments can’t afford to hire as many firefighters as they’d like. “We just don’t have the money,” says Brown.

Although department revenues, which are tied to rising property values, have skyrocketed, equipment costs are rising even faster. “We’ve got four pieces of [major] equipment right now that’s over 20 years old,” he says. According to National Fire Protection Association standards, “Anything over 20 years should be replaced. We can’t keep up with that standard.” Instead, continues Brown, “We try to maintain our equipment and keep it in the best working order.”

Fairview, too, has 20-year-old firetrucks on the front lines, Jones reports. Years ago, he notes, “We might have bought it brand-new for $100,000. Right now that same truck, brand-new, is probably $600,000. The biggest challenge is trying to maintain and keep up with the growth of Fairview but also keep our buildings and properties and equipment up-to-date, so we don’t end up getting a firefighter hurt with an old piece of apparatus.”

Just outfitting a single firefighter is plenty pricey. In the early ’90s, an air pack with a spare bottle cost $700 or $800; today, the equivalent piece of gear is about $6,500, he points out.

In fact, notes Jones, rising equipment costs have actually contributed to driving up wages. “We lost seven paid firefighters in one year due to being able to go to another department and be paid more money.” But a salary study conducted by a consulting firm concluded that it would be cheaper to offer more competitive wages than to hire and equip new firefighters.

Although Leicester faces similar challenges, Brown says that thanks to its 14-cent fire tax (one of the highest in the county), his department has managed to keep expenses below revenue and even, most years, put some money aside to help meet future needs.

Fairview, meanwhile, is toward the lower end of the fire-tax spectrum, with a tax rate of 10.5 cents per $100 of assessed property value. Last year, the department responded to nearly 50 percent more calls than Leicester, while spending only one-third more to provide those services. Nonetheless, Fairview’s expenses have outpaced its revenues for several years.

The 2016 difference in tax rates and budget commitments for the two departments enabled Leicester to accumulate some $250,000 in savings, while Fairview was about that amount in the red — even though it’s only a few years since its last tax rate increase.

Numbers game

Although keeping up with best practices costs plenty, improving service quality and capability can actually save taxpayers money, even if they never experience a house fire or medical emergency themselves.

Buncombe County is currently divided into 20 fire protection, ambulance and rescue service districts plus five municipal districts. Nineteen fire departments, some of which have substations, serve these areas, and every community in each of the districts is rated by the N.C. Department of Insurance, based on the fire department assigned to that area and each home’s proximity to the nearest station. A point system evaluates such factors as staffing levels, amount and condition of equipment, communications capabilities and water availability, and a lower number rating typically results in lower fire insurance rates, though beyond a certain point only high-dollar residences and commercial properties benefit. Homes within 5 miles of a fire station get that department’s best rating, which in Buncombe ranges from 3 to 9E. Houses between 5 and 6 road miles from a qualifying station are rated 9E. Any home that’s more than than 6 road miles from a station gets a 10 rating: the same as one with no fire protection.

This is one of the reasons that departments have been striving to improve the service in the county’s fastest-growing areas. And while fire tax rates have been raised to support that growth, homeowners’ insurance rates have come down across broad swaths of the county.

That’s particularly true for houses within 5 road miles of a department that’s taken steps to improve its rating, notes Terry Gentry of the Buncombe County Fire Marshal’s Office. In the last five years, five local departments, including both Leicester and Fairview, have been able to lower the ratings for nearby homes from 9E to 6. Woodfin’s rating dropped from 6 to 5. Three others have recently gone from 5 to 4. And Skyland went from 4 to 3, joining Asheville as the county’s top departments in terms of insurance ratings.

Meanwhile, the improvements keep coming. Fairview, for example, was recently reinspected. “In the last few years since the inspection where they got the 6/9E,” says Gentry, “they’ve added a station, they’ve added personnel and equipment.” And by next year, he says, the department will be classified 3/9E. Thanks to that second station, only a very small percentage of the organization’s service area is now more than 5 miles from firefighters standing by to help.

Tax and save

A portion of property tax revenue goes to fund the fire district each homeowner resides in. The Buncombe County commissioners set fire tax rates, which vary depending on the locality, and departments requesting an increase must justify it by showing how it will serve the public. The Enka-Candler and Skyland departments have the lowest rates, at 9 and 9.1 cents, respectively. Barnardsville and tiny Garren Creek are at the upper end, with 15-cent rates. The rest fall somewhere in between, with the larger departments in more populous districts tending toward the low end and those in more spread-out, rural districts typically higher. The chiefs say they strive to keep tax rates low, but the real win for homeowners comes from the insurance savings that better ratings often bring.

The owner of a $100,000 house in Leicester, for example, would have seen a $30 increase (from $110 to $140) when the fire tax went from 11 cents to 14 cents. But for homes within the 5-mile limit, says Brown, the insurance rating dropped from 9 to 6, which “pretty much cut their insurance expenses in half.” And for most homeowners, that would mean a savings of well over $200, depending on their insurance carrier.

For homeowners, dropping the rating from 9E to 6 generates the biggest savings. Further improvements tend to benefit commercial structures more than homes, notes Gentry.

But balancing tax increases and insurance savings can be tricky, says Jerry Vehaun, the county’s emergency services director, and there’s no guarantee that improving services will lead to lower premiums. “Sometimes it benefits commercial and doesn’t benefit a homeowner; sometimes it will benefit both.”

Fairview resident Lisa Baldwin takes exception to the way things worked out in her community. Because the county commissioners voted to reassess property at a time when home prices were high, she explains, both her fire tax and her total tax bill have increased by 25 percent, despite no change in the rate. And while the department’s new substation may have helped lower the insurance rating from 6 to 3 for any building within 5 miles of the facility, Baldwin says she won’t see any benefit, because the base insurance rate is the same for residences rated 1-6. She and her neighbors, says Baldwin, were led to believe that building a new station would lower their insurance costs, but she’s paying more across the board.

“My homeowner’s insurance premium is going up. The insurance company asked us to sign a form giving them permission to charge us more than the rate allowed by N.C.! The reason given was that many claims had been filed in the area. We did not file any claims, and our credit is perfect,” she says.

Riding herd

But if most of these fire departments aren’t part of any government, how do they get tax dollars? And how does the public know the recipients aren’t blowing it all on picnics — or simply letting their board of directors and officers pocket the money?

The county does require a certain level of accountability, Vehaun explains. “Everything they do has to be open to the public. They have to follow the contract they’ve got with the county that specifies that they have an audit every year. They have to turn it in to the county before they’ll receive any money for the following year from their fire tax.” And in the meantime, they must satisfy the contract’s requirements in order to collect their monthly share of the property taxes. They’re also required to adhere to the state’s open meetings law, he says.

But once a department has requested and received a tax increase, the general public can’t know exactly what happens to every dollar, and it isn’t even clear that residents have the right to that information, as they generally do with governmental operations.

As a result, it’s not easy to suss out the inner workings of fire department spending. Xpress obtained financial information for this story from various sources, including the county attorney’s office and finance department, interviews with fire chiefs, and reports from the Buncombe County Fire Chiefs Association. The finance department reviews and maintains the independent audits of the various firefighting organizations.

We emailed all the volunteer fire departments, asking for materials that should be readily available in the case of a municipal department: an organizational chart, roster, budget and pay scale. Initially, however, the only response came from Terry Simmonds, Garren Creek’s treasurer. The county’s smallest fire department, he explained, is an independent nonprofit, adding, “Much of the data that you request is available in the public domain, and I suggest that you seek it there.” Simmonds did offer to speak to Xpress about the “nature of these corporations” but he made it clear that the “discussions would be limited to that information which is available publicly.” Simmonds also said the local chiefs association would be providing additional data on behalf of all the departments.

Ryan Cole, who was then the association’s head, did supply much of the requested information, including a multidepartment pay scale survey — but he, too, maintained that the departments aren’t legally required to disclose it and that they were providing whatever material they chose to share solely in the interest of transparency. For his part, Cole, who’s the deputy chief at Skyland Fire & Rescue, said he’s allowed to divulge only what his board of directors has authorized.

Xpress argued that because of the contract arrangement with the county, such information is in the public interest. And they should fulfill public information requests because, under state law, these quasi-governmental entities “are entitled to the same immunities and protections that [government-run] fire departments are allowed,” says Amanda Martin, general counsel for the N.C. Press Association.

Following the money

When it comes to things like ethics, transparency and departmental policy — or, for that matter, anything not expressly covered in the contract that grants these organizations access to the county’s fire tax revenue — the buck stops with each department’s board of directors and its bylaws. Each fire chief serves as executive and thus also wields a certain amount of power.

Board members may represent various interests. Leicester’s board includes a retired principal, a banker and assorted other community members who, says Brown, are “pretty tough, especially when you start talking about money. I have a good board of directors: They’re regular citizens, but they have a lot of experience. … I have to have my ducks in a row to them, I’ll say that. I’ve been turned down several times” on budget requests.

And even if his organization isn’t subject to the same transparency laws as, for example, the Asheville Fire Department, “We have nothing to hide,” says Brown. “We try to be open.” The community, he notes, is invited to the annual meetings, and lenders that finance major expenditures often require public meetings as well.

Furthermore, says Vehaun, if the county saw evidence of poor management at a particular fire department, the commissioners could revise the next contract to require specified governmental best practices. These contracts already require an audit, open board meetings and a bidding process when costs are expected to exceed a set amount.

Teamwork

Although local governments don’t have to provide fire protection services, North Carolina’s 1977 Emergency Management Act does hold counties responsible for coordinating emergency management efforts within their boundaries. They can either establish their own service organizations or contract with municipal or nonprofit volunteer departments funded via special service districts.

Buncombe County operates a fire marshal’s office to implement its inspection and prevention programs; it also has contracts with all of the volunteer entities plus the Asheville and Black Mountain fire departments. The Asheville agreement covers Biltmore Estate and a portion of Haw Creek; Black Mountain serves the East Buncombe Fire District. Weaverville, meanwhile, runs its own fire department, Montreat contracts with Black Mountain to provide fire protection and Biltmore Forest contracts with Skyland.

Biltmore Forest used to pay the city of Asheville $750,000 per year for fire service. Looking to cut costs, the town signed a 15-year contract with Skyland at an annual cost of $425,000 in 2013, according to Town Administrator Jonathan Kanipe. The deal guarantees service that gives all affected residents an insurance rating of 6 or better. In addition, Skyland agreed to build a substation in the town. The department also sends a representative to town meetings and even drives a truck bearing Santa Claus through town during the holidays.

Asheville Fire Chief Scott Burnette says he doesn’t regret the loss of that contract, since there’s more than enough demand for his department’s services. Last year, the AFD responded to over 18,000 calls for service, he says. Those calls included about 900 fires and assistance to other fire departments. Concord, with a similar population and land area, responds to a more typical 8,000 or 9,000 calls in a year.

“Our workload, our service demand, is for a population of about 200,000, and we have the resources available to a community of less than 100,000,” notes Burnette. That dynamic, he says, results from Asheville’s popularity as a tourist destination and the city’s role as a regional hub for education, health care and shopping.

It’s mutual

A countywide mutual aid agreement, explains Burnette, obliges the closest unit to respond to any incident. That means, for example, “if a citizen in the Candler community calls 911, then we will send a unit if we are closer than they are.” And it works the same way going the other direction, with Candler units responding to Asheville calls, the chief says. Covering for other departments happens “on a daily basis.”

That kind of coordination works “seamlessly” because the firefighters share a training facility, engage in joint training exercises and use common operating procedures, Burnette says. When different departments respond to a call, an incident management system determines who is in command. Those procedures don’t depend on jurisdiction or rank, volunteer or paid staff, he continues, but rather on “what is going on on that scene at that time.”

Beyond the legal agreements and shared protocols, firefighters belong to a subculture that views the bonds between team members and services as akin to family ties. And oftentimes, members of the same family work together in the same department, a practice that brings its own benefits and concerns. (See sidebar, “Focus on the fire family.”)

The volunteer system Ben Franklin set up nearly 300 years ago has spawned a complex web of taxes, insurance, contracts, training and equipment, not to mention people and relationships. Despite the challenges of funding and coordination, however, it’s hard to dispute that local first responders consistently rise to the challenge of emergencies large and small, forming the bedrock of a public safety system on which the entire community depends.

While there’s nary a leather bucket to be found in today’s fire service, and volunteers represent a shrinking part of the system, the spirit of the cooperative approach remains as leaders confront the challenges of modern governance and firefighting.

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About Able Allen
Able studied political science and history at Warren Wilson College. He enjoys travel, dance, games, theater, blacksmithing and the great outdoors. Follow me @AbleLAllen

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