Buckhannon fire chief asks for stipends
BUCKHANNON — Buckhannon’s fire chief asked Buckhannon City Council to consider an alternative to the part-time firefighter position and instead pay volunteer firefighters a stipend.
The discussion ignited at Thursday’s meeting prompted council to table approving the preparation of a home rule amendment application to create the part-time firefighter position and instead direct city attorney Tom O’Neill and director of finance and administration Amberle Jenkins to research legal and administrative questions and report back at the Oct. 17 council meeting.
BFD Fire Chief J.B. Kimble said his department discussed at the pros and cons of adding a part-time firefighter and he shared the potential negative impact on the city’s ISO rating and the high training requirements required to be a firefighter. The part-time position would need to maintain 10 to 20 hours of training each month.
“If whoever does the position, doesn’t get the adequate training as they work, that will have a negative impact,” he said.
The fire department than began looking at other models, one of which was to pay volunteers a stipend for four-hour blocks of coverage as allowed under wage and hour regulations. O’Neill had also been in a meeting with the firefighters.
“I always said this (the part-time firefighter) wasn’t really a model I would pick but I didn’t have anything else to provide to you as a model [until now],” Kimble said.
Volunteer firefighters also expressed their concerns to Kimble over the hiring of a part-time firefighter when they already provide 300 to 400 hours of coverage a year.
“We already have the trained people who are providing the hours of coverage we need for our events,” he said. “The volunteers are already part of our organization. We are a family. They feel they can provide this coverage. With this model, the city could provide them a stipend based on their training level.
“We think this would be a huge recruitment and retention policy for our fire department,” he said. “This is the first time this has ever been looked at in West Virginia that we know of.”
Prior to the discussion, McCauley had asked for a motion to approve the preparation of the home rule application which was made by councilman C.J. Rylands.
No council member offered a second and McCauley had to do so.
The mayor asked O’Neill, “Are we convinced that this stipend model has been approved by the State of West Virginia?”
O’Neill answered, “I’m not aware that it’s unlawful. I don’t know that it’s permitted and I don’t know that it’s not permitted. Wy can’t we just hire those same volunteers as part-time firefighters versus the stipend model?”
Kimble said the volunteers told him, “If you are going to hire a part-time person to cover what we are already covering, why would we help you cover it then?”
Another concern is that the part-time firefighter would disrupt the positive relationship between the career and volunteer departments.
“The fear is if somebody comes in part-time that is not part of our ownership of our organization, it will be a wrench in our system,” he said. “Right now with the accreditation, we are progressing tremendously.”
McCauley said, “Let me back up a minute. The job description this council approved two meetings ago was prepared in concert between you and Tom O’Neill. You guys laid out what we would need to do to that protect that ISO rating. I’m not talking about hiring someone off the street.”
But Kimble said his department and volunteers felt more secure with the stipend model.
McCauley said, “After 37 years of practicing in civil service, I’m going to have to be convinced that this stipend thing holds legal water under state statute because it runs afoul and contrary to everything that we have ever talked about.”
The mayor asked what if Kimble didn’t want to retire fully at age 55 but wanted to stay on part-time.
“That is precisely the kind of police officer we anticipated would fall into one of those part-time police positions,” he said.
However, the part-time police officer that the City of Buckhannon hired was a younger police officer who works full-time with the Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement Division.
“As we contemplate this SAFER grant, imagine the opportunity that these part-time positions would provide to segue people into those full-time positions,” McCauley said. “We have hired 18 police officers in 18 years. We have hired 22 police officers in 22 years. Once a year we go through this process. Wouldn’t it be great if for the first time ever we had a pool of people to train people into full-time positions instead of going back to the drawing board each time?”
Kimble pointed to the police department being a pro-active organization that patrols and the fire department being mainly reactive (with some pre-planning and fire prevention).
“If I can sit here and tell you that I’m going to have a fire at 3 p.m. Friday and I could have all the part-time people and all the paid staff there, it would be a wonderful world,” he said. “I could have a part-time guy on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and him be off on Friday and the fire would happen on Friday.”
McCauley then questioned the need to apply for the SAFER grant to add three full-time firefighters.
“I was told volunteerism is down, number one,” he said. “Number two, if we have an overabundance of volunteers ready to step up why in the world would we apply to add three full-time firefighters at a cost in three years of about $300,000 to this city. Why are we looking at that model?”
But Kimble replied, “Because you have asked us to become accredited and we are finding faults in our service that we don’t have enough staffing for the fire load that we provide.”
McCauley said, “Wouldn’t adding these part-time trained firefighters, would that not add to our accreditation effort?”
Kimble said, “If I could tell you when we are going to have a fire, that would be perfect but I can’t do that sir. I can’t tell you when you are going to have a fire.”
But McCauley pointed to firefighters being off for injuries and medical reasons the last few years.
“There is not value in having a pool that you can turn to, to fill that void?” the mayor asked.
Kimble said the job description he crafted with O’Neill is for a firefighter, not a fire officer and that creates another issue.
“When Brian, Joey or Linn is off, you can’t provide coverage,” he said. “You are walking a thin line with civil service there – taking a part-timer to cover hours of a full-timer.”
Kimble said that a part-time city officer is not taking a position of a full-time city officer.
“You’re saying that if someone got hurt that this part-timer would take the place of a full-time person,” he said. “I wholeheartedly feel that would create a lot of friction in our career staff.”
O’Neill said, “We can avoid that problem in the ordinance and in the application.”
McCauley said, “What I would like Tom to do is to check on the legitimacy of this stipend notion between now and the next meeting. If you can have something for us by Oct. 17, Tom? Some opinion?”
O’Neill said he could do that.
“I’m not seeing a great deal of difference between this stipend model and hiring those same guys as part-time firefighters,” O’Neill repeated.
Kimble said under wage and hour, there is 20 percent allowed for the stipend.
For example, if a firefighter makes $12 an hour, and the stipend is 20 percent, the volunteer would get $2.40 an hour.
Councilman Robbie Skinner said that now when a career firefighter is off for an illness or injury that the time has to be offered to a current full-time career firefighter first.
“Even if we had a part-time firefighter, he is second in line,” he said.
Councilman Dave Thomas said he would like to see an analysis of the pros and cons of the part-time vs. the stipend. He also questioned if those were needed if the city received a SAFER grant which would add three positions – bringing the number of firefighters per shift to three.
McCauley said, “Until I see a financial model that is going to support that nearly $300,000 a year, where is that money going to come from?”
Kimble said if the three full-time positions are added at a cost of $174,000 a year, it would save the city money $20,000 to $30,000 overtime because they could maintain a minimum of two firefighters per shift even with vacations and sick leave. That would bring the cost down.
The SAFER grant also provides some funding for the first three years.
The city is under a tight time frame as it must have a two-reading ordinance before the measure can go before the West Virginia Home Rule Board which will most likely be scheduled for January.