by ANNA SAUNDERS
Thu, July 27th 2023
TEAYS VALLEY, W.Va. (WCHS) — When the calls go out and the emergency tones sound off inside the Teays Valley Fire Department, on average, firefighters are on the scene in about six minutes. However, that response time is expected to double as the department will begin operating on a 12-hour schedule beginning August 13.
“We are almost at rock bottom,” Teays Valley Fire Chief John Smoot said.
On Thursday, the department announced that because of budget constraints and staffing, the department will go from 24/7 to operating 12 hours a day during peak times. The ambulance service will stay 24/7. Smoot said these budgetary and staffing issues have followed them for more than a decade, but he said the department has always been able to get some relief whether that be from grants, CARES funding or adding an ambulance service.
Smoot said after the failure of the Putnam Fire and Rescue Services Levy last November, it was the major blow that forced the department to make changes. As opposed to much of West Virginia, Putnam County has seen its population explode over the last 40 years. According to U.S. Census data, Putnam County’s population has gone up by 50% since 1980. Teays Valley’s population has gone up by 70%.
Smoot said in 2012 they started to see the effects of a blossoming population as they only were able to respond to 59% of emergency service requests.
“We recognized 11 years ago that we could not service this community in the capacity that we were being asked to,” he said.
Budget concerns and staffing issues will force the Teays Valley Fire Department to limit hours of operation. (WCHS) Not only will the department now have cutbacks in operational hours but they are discontinuing programming like smoke detector installation, the drone program and the annual Santa Claus program. To keep the current staff, Chief Smoot and three captains will also be eliminating their salaries.
After these cuts, the fire department will be operating with a $1.4 million budget as Smoot said he would need $2.9 million budget to make it all work at full capacity.
Teays Valley operates with 25 on payroll and three volunteers. The department gets about 14.5% of funding from the county fire services board. The rest comes from its ambulance service and grants when they are available. Teays Valley also receives about $52,000 from the state every year, but that and the money from the county cannot be used on salaries, which is why Smoot said the whole funding formula needs a statewide overhaul.
“How many sets of handcuffs do you want to put on a fire chief to make it work?” Smoot asked. “The busier the departments, the more need. If we were running 50 calls a year, it would be a whole different ball game, but that engine company runs almost 2,000 calls a year and we can’t do it.”
Richard Pullin, the fire administrator in Putnam County, said the lack of funding and volunteers is a statewide problem. He said while everything else has gone up in terms of expenses, fire fees in Putnam County have stayed at $37.50 to $45 since 2013.
“So in ten years those fees have not went up a dollar, but yet workers comp, insurance, utilities – we all hear every year how the utility commission is raising prices here – the fire departments are involved as well. Our bills are going up,” Pullin said.
There was an attempt last fall and a big push from the Putnam Fire Services Board and the fire departments to pass a fire and rescue services levy that would get rid of the fire fee and add a property tax instead. That was voted down by Putnam County as levies need 60% to pass.
After responding to a large structure fire at the Devonshire apartment complex just weeks ago in Scott Depot, Smoot said their five-minute response saved lives. However that will no longer be the response time as the department will operate on an on-call basis during off hours. Though emotional and frustrating, Smoot said this is the unfortunate reality unless changes are made at the state level.
“I said it in November and I’ll say it again today: Unless you experience a fire truck showing up at your door, an ambulance showing up at your door or a police officer showing up at your door, you don’t know what it means to have emergency services and when it’s gone you’ll realize it,” Smoot said. Smoot did say that discussions are being had about merging with other fire departments. He is also working with the fire services board, the county commission and legislators to look at possible solutions.
The fire department is also putting calls out to the community for support. They are launching volunteer campaigns to recruit more volunteer firefighters and have asked the public to donate online.