Lawmakers gave WV firefighters a one-time cash infusion. Volunteer departments need a long-term solution.
EAST LYNN — Jim Asbury sits in the meeting hall of the East Lynn Volunteer Fire Department scarfing down a plate of biscuits and gravy.
It’s late in the morning on a Friday, and the cicadas shriek outside as the sun sits high in the sky. In this corner of Wayne County, there’s not much — the fire department, an elementary school, a Baptist Church, a post office and a country store with a gravel lot. Asbury is tired: he spent the prior evening up all night, working his paying job as an EMT for the Town of Wayne Fire Department a little more than 10 miles away.
“There’s no typical call,” Asbury said. His volunteer fire department has about a dozen active members responding to anything from house fires to car wrecks to rock slides.
But brush fires — caused by dried leaves catching in the winter — can pose a serious danger to the entire community, due to the unpredictability of how they spread. The winds can shift, putting firefighters clearing away debris directly in the flames’ path.
Out in the country, there are no fire hydrants. A tanker truck would help, but East Lynn doesn’t have one.
The situation isn’t unique in West Virginia, where about 420 volunteer fire departments try to cover most of the state, except for cities like Charleston and Huntington. During August’s special session, lawmakers passed a bill putting aside $12 million in additional funding for the fire service. But whether the money is permanent depends on who one asks — lawmakers say it carves a place out in the budget, leaving open the possibility they’ll put more money in there next year; Gov. Jim Justice has called the money a “one-time fund” and said he’d find a way to make it permanent without raising taxes — a plan he would not elaborate on.
But in East Lynn, the situation remains the same: they still don’t have a tanker to tackle the remote hollers and hills where folks have lived for generations.
They have a surplus truck from the National Guard that holds a little water, a rescue truck that can spray off the road after an accident and a beat up pickup with a little tank in the bed.
“We have to really think ahead,” Asbury said. “We know which roads don’t have water access, so what’ll do if we get a call we’ll call for mutual aid.”
So that means a tanker will come from one of the other nearby departments — either in the county or from nearby Lincoln or Mingo counties.
Boot drives, hot dogs and spaghetti dinners — how West Virginia’s volunteer fire departments get funding
West Virginia’s volunteer fire departments don’t rely strictly on the state for money. They can charge insurance companies for their services, and 23 counties in the state — including Wayne — have special taxes in place to fund theirs. And then there are the classic boot drives, hot dog sales and spaghetti dinners.
But when it comes to state funds, since 2005 that’s been through a 0.55% tax on property insurance premiums.
For the past 15 years, lawmakers have pushed to raise it to an even 1%. Republican or Democrat majorities didn’t matter — the tax raise died every single time.
Sen. Vince Deeds, R-Greenbrier, said every time raising the tax came up “the insurance companies would get nervous” and lobby hard against it.
The bill actually gained a little bit of traction in the 2023 regular session, with a slight modification. Instead of fully funding volunteer fire with the tax, the difference in the increase would be split between fire and EMS.
In the House of Delegates, lawmakers ripped out the tax increase in favor of funding it with lottery money. When it got sent back to the Senate, lawmakers in that chamber cut the lottery proposal and put the tax back in before volleying it back to the house.
Deeds, who co-chairs the Joint Committee on Volunteer Fire Departments and Emergency Medical Services, said the latest effort “died on the vine” during the last days of the session.
“[Firefighters] were understandably mad and upset,” he said. “We let them down.”
Randy James, president of the state fire chief’s association, told lawmakers in April he was “burned up” and “very disappointed” with how that turned out.
“I don’t even know why I keep coming up here to Charleston,” he said. “I have people ask me why all the time, because y’all aren’t listening.”
When Justice called lawmakers into a special session in August, one of the bills on the list shifted money in the state coffers to give volunteer fire departments $12 million out of the general revenue fund. When they did that, they created a permanent line item in the budget — a specific place to park the money.
But since it’s general revenue money, that means the amount has to be voted on every year, along with the rest of the budget. The actual money isn’t guaranteed to be there year after year.
If the premium tax was raised — in April, a legislative lawyer ballparked that it could cost about $20 extra dollars a year for the average West Virginia household — lawmakers wouldn’t need to dedicate money each year. It would come automatically.
Deeds said he is confident — barring lean times like the mid-2010s — that $12 million will be budgeted every year during regular sessions.
“I don’t think anyone would want to cut the fire department funding,” he said.
In town and in the hollers, volunteer fire department coverage is “iffy”
Deeds, a former West Virginia State Trooper with family in EMS and the fire service, said rural departments like East Lynn would be the first to shut their doors, due to budget constraints and recruitment. He said in his hometown of Renick, the department there got so lean when a lighting strike caught fire to a church, Lewisburg had to respond from 30 minutes away.
But even in town, more often than not the fire service is volunteer. They might have an ambulance — the EMTs working those are paid — but the firefighters are all volunteers.
Back in Wayne County, the Huntington suburbs of Ceredo and Kenova sit along the Ohio River. Crammed in right next to each other — a rail bridge divides the two towns — the two have separate fire departments.
With Interstate 64, the Ohio River with bass boats and coal barges and the Huntington Regional Airport nearby, the two towns are a far cry from sparsely populated East Lynn 30 miles south.
Here, the calls are always coming, generally for the ambulance, which comes out for overdoses, cardiac arrests and “lift assists” — scanner jargon for someone on the floor that can’t get up.
Chief Rob Robson of the Ceredo Fire Department said he joined in 1998 when he was 16 years old. Sitting on the bumper of a fire truck that predates his time at the department, Robson said he’s seen the changes in the fire service.
“Back in the day, it used to be if you weren’t at the station and there was a call, you might as well not even show up,” he said. “There would be four or five pickup trucks lined up with the tailgates down and people talking and when the call came in, they were out immediately.”
Times have changed. Robson said he thinks the high cost of living — with folks working two or three jobs to raise a family — means less time to volunteer at the department.
The lack of manpower means Ceredo and Kenova constantly back one another up; When one is called out, the other responds unless told not to. The chief said staffing isn’t at crisis levels, but getting coverage during the day is “iffy.”
But the calls don’t stop. The night prior, Robson said his department put out an apartment fire, a car fire, responded to a false alarm and worked a fatal crash.
Unlike East Lynn, which can’t afford an ambulance and has to rely on the town of Wayne’s, Ceredo had two rigs. The keyword is “had” — one burnt up a few months ago so now they’re just down to one.
“I get concerned sometimes because I’ll hear a medical call come in, then wonder if we can respond to another one that comes in,” Robson said.
He says funding isn’t everything — the people are the most important part of the equation. But the two are connected in fundamental ways. When the money starts rolling from the state, he would like to use some of it to give his EMTs raises. But it’s a risky move, considering he doesn’t know if the money will actually be there the following year.
“I can’t give someone a raise one year then tell them they have to take a pay cut the next,” he said.
Lawmakers gave WV firefighters a one-time cash infusion. Volunteer departments need a long-term solution. appeared first on Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia’s civic newsroom.