CURRITUCK, N.C. — Currituck County will keep paid firefighters on Knotts Island following a contract dispute that led the volunteer department in the isolated community to stop responding to calls this month — and the change may lead to an additional tax.
Officials said this week that this will come at a cost that is being determined and marks a change to a longstanding system that relies upon volunteers when fires occur. In a statement this afternoon, the county announced that paid firefighters will stay on the island “on a permanent basis.” The board of commissioners may create a “fire service tax district” for the island to pay for it.
In interviews, officials said the issue involves ongoing public safety concerns, not just a contract impasse. County officials told The Independent News they hope fire response on the island would still involve volunteer firefighters, as it does throughout Currituck, which has six volunteer departments.
“It’s a service delivery issue,” said county Fire and Emergency Medical Services Chief Ralph Melton. “The volunteers are no longer able to meet service demand.”
“What we’re really looking at going toward is paid supplemented by volunteers,” Board Chairperson Bobby Hanig, who represents District 2, said following the Monday, Nov. 20, board meeting.
The issue is expected to be considered by the board in December, and commissioners may consider a resolution.
The volunteers on Knotts Island suspended fire response on the island on Wednesday, Nov. 8, because the department did not have a contract with the county covering its operations, according to Knotts Island Volunteer Fire Department Chief Derek Morgan. Last week, Morgan told The Independent News that the department was seeking an extension of its agreement to operate with the county through the year, hopefully enough time to resolve the situation.
Extending the contract may now be a moot point, though Morgan, during an interview this evening, said he hoped the volunteer department and county would be able to reach an agreement for this year and discuss how a revised arrangement might work.
“I would hope for an extension so the volunteers can go back to volunteering,” he said.
Morgan learned about the county’s statement from a reporter this evening. He said the volunteer department has asked for paid personnel to augment the station in the past when its membership was down, only to be rejected by the county. The department’s membership has grown, he noted, though covering fire calls during the day is a challenge when some volunteers work off the island or outside the county.
“I hope we can sit down, work together and have time to work out the details,” he said. “The county, in my opinion, has been one way with this. … I tell you this, if the contract had been signed, they wouldn’t have even put paid people there.”
In an interview earlier today, Melton said the heart of the issue is whether there are capabilities to protect islanders and their property.
“The county has recognized a critical need there and is stepping in,” Melton said.
He said the county has been concerned about fire response on the island for some time, and the issue with the contract is not the only factor.
“It’s kind of forced our hand,” he said, adding that the volunteers are good, dedicated people. “There’s just too few of them trained on the island to live up to the contractual obligation.”
He said it is not unusual for volunteer departments to face challenges with staffing. Knotts Island, he said, is a special case because of its geographic location and responses involve people traveling some distance to a fire.
He said the county is urging volunteers on the island to continue to volunteer, and he said he hopes more people in the Knotts Island community will get involved.
Officials reiterated this week that paid personnel are in place, and that there is fire protection on the island despite issues between the county and volunteers.
“We’re providing fire protection for Knotts Island,” said Commissioner Bob White, who represents District 1.
White said that includes two additional paid county firefighters at the station, in addition to two emergency medical services personnel normally assigned there, and backup through a mutual aid agreement with the Virginia Beach Fire Department.
That department has a station in the Creeds community in southern Virginia Beach, roughly 10 miles away from the station on the island. Virginia Beach has a paid fire department, though its emergency medical services department depends upon volunteers.
Currituck, essentially, does the reverse, relying upon volunteers and paid EMS personnel, some of whom also are certified as firefighters. The Currituck County Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services works with and augments responses by the volunteer departments in the county.
In the statement released this evening, the county Fire and EMS department invited Knotts Island volunteer firefighters and any interested residents to work with the county to assist with the fire response on the island.
“This will create a true combination, career/volunteer fire department to ensure a minimum staffing of four cross-trained firefighters staffing the fire engine and Advance Life Support Ambulance,” the statement said.
The contact for those interested in volunteering is fire Lt. Ray Irizarry, who can be reached by email via firstname.lastname@example.org. Further information about volunteering in the county is available via co.currituck.nc.us/fire-departments.cfm.
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