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Paid firefighters on duty on Knotts Island amid contract dispute between Currituck County, volunteers

Mark Soady and Mike Childress, both Currituck County Firefighter and Emergency Medical Services personnel, are shown on duty at the Knotts Island Volunteer Fire Department station in Knotts Island, N.C., on Friday, Nov. 10. Volunteer firefighters stopped providing services on the island on Wednesday, Nov. 8, due to a contract dispute with Currituck County. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

BY JOHN-HENRY DOUCETTE

KNOTTS ISLAND, N.C. — Paid Currituck County firefighters are on duty here amid a contract dispute between the county and the volunteer rescue firefighters who normally serve at the island’s station, essentially an outpost for property protection and lifesaving in a community isolated by water from the rest of North Carolina.

The volunteers suspended fire response on the island on Wednesday, Nov. 8, according to a statement released on social media by the county. According to that statement, the volunteers notified the county of the decision that evening “without advance notice.”

However, the island’s volunteer fire chief said the decision came only because the volunteers did not have a needed contract to cover their operations — and that’s because efforts to negotiate a contract with county officials have fallen upon deaf ears.

“The county has not reached out to us at all,” Knotts Island Volunteer Fire Department Chief Derek Morgan said today.

“The things that we asked for are things that we need,” he added. “It is to provide better services.”

Currituck County officials assigned personnel certified as firefighters to the station on the island. Two paid emergency medical technicians normally serve there, but those shifts are not necessarily filled by people also certified as firefighters.

The Currituck County system is something of a reverse image of the one in Virginia Beach, which has a paid fire department and relies extensively upon volunteer emergency medical services personnel.

Currituck County said it “activated” its mutual aid agreement with the Virginia Beach Fire Department.

“We’re not doing anything different, as far as Knotts Island goes,” said Art Kohn, the spokesperson for the Virginia Beach Fire Department. “We would always respond to a call there.”

This morning, two paid county firefighters were on duty at the station. They conducted training with visiting Virginia Beach firefighters and spoke to members of the news media gathered at the station.

“I was told to be here today with my partner to provide fire service to Knotts Island,” said county Firefighter/EMT Mark Soady. “I was told to be here today and tomorrow. … There’s no volunteers here today.”

He said no senior leaders were available to comment.

“We’re here to provide the service for the citizens,” Soady said. “We’re here for the residents.”

Virginia Beach firefighters also drove around the island a bit this morning, including stopping in at local businesses. The nearest Virginia Beach station at Creeds is about 10 miles up the road — and across the causeway — from the Knotts Island station.

The statement by the county said the volunteers returned a draft contract offered this spring, unsigned but with suggested changes. An extension of the existing contract went into effect until Tuesday, Oct. 31, but there was no agreement to extend or replace it.

“At this time, the 2017-18 contract with KIVFD remains unsigned,” the county said in its statement. “All other volunteer fire departments in Currituck County are operating under signed contracts and providing fire response as normal.”

The county is working to resolve the matter, the statement said, and “fire emergencies will receive an appropriate response” from the county fire and emergency medical services department and Virginia Beach firefighters.

In a separate statement posted to its Facebook page, the volunteer department said the county “never once was willing to negotiate a contract” or offer alternatives, as the county has done in other communities.

The volunteers also want paid county personnel assigned to the station to have firefighting certifications and have licenses to drive fire equipment insured by the volunteer department.

Morgan said the county gave two other volunteer departments, Crawford Township and Lower Currituck, extensions until next summer.

“We need to get a contract or an extension,” Morgan said. “I’d prefer that instead of an extension the county sits down and negotiates a contract.”

The volunteers also “asked that in the contract it would state that all new contracts be provided 90 days prior so they could be reviewed and if any negotiations were needed it could be done in a timely manner,” according to the statement.

Ample time to negotiate might have prevented this from happening, Morgan said.


Statement at the Currituck County Government Facebook page on Thursday, Nov. 9:

Residents of Knotts Island, in Currituck County, N.C., are assured of fire service response during emergency situations despite the decision by the Knotts Island Volunteer Fire Department (KIVFD) on Nov. 8, 2017 to suspend all fire response by its personnel. Because of this action by KIVFD, Currituck County has activated a Mutual Aid Agreement with the City of Virginia Beach, Va. to provide fire response services in Knotts Island.

Also, Currituck County is assigning additional personnel to Knotts Island from the county’s Department of Fire-Emergency Medical Services. These county employees are dual-certified as paramedics and firefighters.

Without advance notice, KIVFD notified Currituck County in the evening of Nov. 8, 2017 that it was immediately suspending all fire response due to not having a signed contract with the county. All volunteer fire departments in Currituck County operate under a yearly service contract.

In the spring, Currituck County presented a contract for 2017-18 to KIVFD – as the county presented to all volunteer fire departments. KIVFD officials returned the contract unsigned with several requested modifications. The county could not agree to those requests and instead offered an extension to the 2016-17 service agreement to extend fire services through Oct. 31, 2017 while the new contract was being discussed. This extension was executed by both Currituck County and KIVFD.

At this time, the 2017-18 contract with KIVFD remains unsigned. All other volunteer fire departments in Currituck County are operating under signed contracts and providing fire response as normal.

Currituck County will continue its attempt to resolve the impasse with KIVFD. In the meantime, residents of Knotts Island are assured that all fire emergencies will receive an appropriate response from Virginia Beach fire personnel and Currituck County Fire-EMS.

Statement from the Knotts Island Volunteer Fire Department on Thursday, Nov. 9:

To clarify the situation. The county never once was willing to negotiate the contract with the department or offer any alternatives as they did with Crawford VFD (station 4) and Lower Currituck VFD (station 5). Some of the primary changes that was asked for was that paid County staff that are permanently assigned to our station be Firefighter 1 and 2 certified, which I believe would be beneficial to the community in the event of a fire or major accident. Also it was asked that personnel from the Country have proper license’s to drive the apparatus since Knotts Island VFD covers the insurance on the equipment and vehicles. Knotts Island VFD asked that in the contract it would state that all new contracts be provided 90 days prior so they could be reviewed and if any negotiations were needed it could be done in a timely manner. At this time the state Fire Marshal office has been notified by the department. Thank you for your support and we hope to have this issue resolved as soon as possible. All updates will be provided as they are provided to the department.


Ed. note — This post was updated at 8:30 p.m., Friday, Nov. 10, to include additional information from the Knotts Island Volunteer Fire Department chief.


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