Updated: Board approves county-led Knotts Island department in ‘interim’ step protecting fire insurance rating; community meeting scheduled for Tuesday at Knotts Island Elementary

Currituck County Fire and Emergency Medical Services Chief Ralph Melton and Deputy Chief Tim Riley are seen during the Monday, Dec. 4, board of commissioners meeting in Currituck. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

CURRITUCK, N.C. — The Currituck County Board of Commissioners on Monday, Dec. 4, voted to establish a county-led fire and rescue department serving Knotts Island in the wake of a contract dispute with volunteers there.

The “interim” step preserves the fire insurance rating for the island, but officials stressed that it is not certain what fire response there will look like ultimately — or how that permanent system will be financed. In recent weeks, officials repeatedly have said volunteers must be part of a combined firefighting system on the island because it is so isolated.

“A long-term solution may or may not include the creation of a fire service tax district for Knotts Island,” said Board Chairperson Bobby Hanig, who read a statement during the meeting. “That is not something that has been determined and is something the board of commissioners will need to discuss.”

Officials said they will meet with islanders to talk over such a thing before it happens. The board is scheduled to hold a special meeting at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 12, in the cafeteria at Knotts Island Elementary School, 413 Woodleigh Road, to discuss community concerns about fire protective services.

“We will not be making any arbitrary decisions without first bringing it to you all,” wrote Commissioner Bob White, who represents District 1, in a social media message to islanders.

Virginia Beach has a paid fire department but extensively relies upon volunteer emergency medical services personnel. Currituck County basically does the reverse, but that arrangement with the Knotts Island Volunteer Fire Department has fallen apart over the past month. There are five other volunteer departments serving the county.

For the isolated island, which is closer to Virginia Beach than it is to the Currituck mainland, a volunteer department traditionally has been the first line of defense in fire emergencies.

There has been discussion about how effective that has been with limited membership on the island, particularly on weekdays when people work off the island or outside the county. County fire and rescue officials have said some fire calls have had little or no response from volunteers in recent years.

“The situation with the volunteer fire department arose as a contract dispute, but, in reality, an intervention by the county has been needed for some time,” Hanig said.

County officials on Monday noted that the decision by commissioners is not a statement on what form fire protection on the island will ultimately take. County fire officials have said they favor a system with the county in the lead but supported by volunteers, as well as mutual aid support from neighboring Virginia Beach.

“I believe a combination department will work best in Knotts Island, which is paid and volunteer firefighters coming together,” county Fire and Emergency Medical Services Chief Ralph Melton said during an interview following the meeting.

This past month, after a contract extension ended, the volunteer department notified the county it would suspend fire response. The county placed two additional paid personnel certified as firefighters at the island’s station, in addition to two cross-trained rescue personnel assigned to the ambulance there.

That staffing is expected to remain in place, and county official have asked volunteers to continue to volunteer to help protect their neighbors, though now through the county and not the volunteer department on the island. Volunteers can call (252) 232-7746 to do so.

“They can still support us, support the citizens and be effective volunteers,” county Fire and EMS Deputy Chief Tim Riley said following the meeting.

County Manager Dan Scanlon on Monday said the resolution is not a declaration of preference for how to provide services on the island, but more of a temporary measure until a permanent solution is established.

There are 833 structures on Knotts Island, not counting ones such as sheds or garages, according to data provided by Harry Lee of the county’s GIS office via email. The vast majority, at least 743, are residential, and there also are some agricultural, commercial and industrial structures, plus offices, churches, the school and, of course, the fire station itself.

In 2016, there were 62 fire calls reported on Knotts Island among 235 rescue calls overall, the majority of which were calls for emergency medical response, according to Riley. 

Ed. — This story was updated at 10:45 a.m., Thursday, Dec. 7, to include information about the community meeting.

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