SOUTHEASTERN NORTH CAROLINA (WECT) - We've been reporting for months that the Leland Volunteer Fire & Rescue Department is on probation with the state. Last spring, the Office of the State Fire Marshal conducted a surprise inspection and found LVFRD did not have enough firefighters responding to several emergency calls in 2015.
There are five other local departments also under disciplinary review by the Office of the State Fire Marshal. A spokesman for the State Fire Marshal said being placed on probation is more common than residents may realize, and his office sees it as an opportunity to help departments improve and become better able to serve and protect their communities.
"I don't want to brush over it and say it's not a big deal. Every resident wants their fire department to be best fire departments possible. And we're not saying by putting them on probation that they are not. We're saying that there's some work to be done," Day explained.
Sunset Harbor/Zion Hill Volunteer Fire Department joins Leland on probationary status in Brunswick County.
Chief Rob Johnson, who joined the Sunset Harbor department earlier this year, said state inspectors conducting a routine inspection in March found staffing shortfalls.
Specifically, Sunset Harbor only had three firefighters respond to a couple of calls in the several years' worth of reports the inspector reviewed, when the minimum requirement was four.
As a result, Johnson said his department has changed the shift schedules for better coverage.
Previously, the paid staff worked in shifts from 8 a.m. to midnight, and volunteers covered overnight and weekend calls. Now, full-time personnel are now on duty around the clock to respond in case of emergency.
Volunteers and duty officers still supplement the force, but Johnson said the new shift schedule ensures better response around the clock.
The Whiteville Fire Department, Brunswick Volunteer Fire Department, and Saint James Volunteer Fire Departments are all on probation in Columbus County.
The Office of the State Fire Marshal lists the reason for all three probations as "Failed to meet Minimum Response Requirements."
Whiteville City Manager Darren Currie explained that during a routine inspection last March, investigators found that Whiteville only sent three firefighters out on several calls last year rather than the required four. As a result of the probation, Whiteville Fire Department has cleaned up its roster of volunteer firefighters who supplement coverage provided by paid firefighters.
They removed some members from the list of volunteers who were no longer active, and recruited new volunteers to beef up the ranks. Currie said it was a needed update that has improved their response to emergency calls. He is confident the probation will be lifted when they are reinspected next year.
We were unable to reach anyone with the Brunswick or Saint James Volunteer Fire Departments for an explanation.
Clarkton Fire Department is the only department on probation in Bladen County. They were placed on probation last December for failing to meet minimum response requirements. We are still trying to reach someone at the department for details.
All fire departments in Pender and New Hanover County are currently in good standing with the state.
The OSFM conducted a surprise inspection of the Leland department last spring, after a resident filed complaints with the state about the department's slow response times. Day said he doesn't have any statistics on how often these probations occur as a result of surprise inspections following citizen complaints versus routine inspections, but anecdotally he thought most resulted from routine inspections.
Typically, fire departments are placed on probation for 12 months, and then reinspected to see if problems have been resolved.
If the underlying issue is resolved, the probation is lifted. If the problems persist, the State Fire Marshal can drop the fire protection rating for that area to a 10, which is the equivalent of not having fire protection for home and business insurance purposes.
The vast majority of the time, the issues are resolved without dropping the fire protection rating for the department.