31-minute response to house fire prompts officials to assess fire services

PENDER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - It's a dilemma in rural areas all over our country. Finding volunteers to run fire departments isn't as easy as it used to be.

Volunteers struggle with the increased training requirements and time commitment involved with volunteer firefighting. At the same time, population growth has contributed to an increased demand for services from these volunteer fire departments.

Pender County is feeling the strain. Over the last several years, the county has hired full-time, paid firefighters at eight of its 10 volunteer fire departments. But most only have paid firefighters during the weekdays, and volunteers still have to cover nights and weekends.

"What a lot of people do not understand is, when the pager goes off, [volunteers] have to stop what they are doing. They could be at work or at home eating dinner, or whatever in their community," Pender County Fire Marshal Tommy Batson said. "They stop what they're doing, they get in their vehicle and drive to the station, put on their proper gear, get in the right apparatus, and then they roll down the road to the call. And that takes time."

Response times vary across the county, but in some of the more rural Pender County fire districts, emergency management officials say it typically takes 10-13 minutes for a fire crew to arrive on scene after a call comes in.

On rare occasions, it can take even longer. During an April house fire on Camellia Drive in Rocky Point, it took the crew from the Rocky Point Volunteer Fire Department 31 minutes to arrive on scene. Fortunately, another station that was further away had a crew on scene within 16 minutes, and the fire was contained.

While the Rocky Point Volunteer Fire Department has paid staff on weekdays, this fire call came in around 5 a.m. on a Monday, before staff had arrived. It's a notoriously difficult time of day to get volunteer coverage.

"You're talking 5 o'clock in the morning. Volunteers are sleeping," Frank Wittkofsky said. "They have jobs. ... They have to get to work."

Wittkofsky lives next door to the house that caught fire, which put his own home at risk.

Despite the delayed response, he had nothing but praise for the volunteer firefighters. Still, he said the incident opened his eyes to their need for more resources.

"The fire station is right up the road," Wittkofsky said. "It ain't but two miles away. It don't take them long once they get there, but I mean, it's volunteer. They should have maybe two or three guys full time."

The Rocky Point Volunteer Fire Chief said that as a result of the slow response to the April fire, they immediately put a paid staff person on duty during nights and weekends. They also assigned volunteers to work specific shifts and are now paying them a stipend for arriving for duty within a certain time after an emergency call.

The chief insisted this was a highly unusual delay. His department handles roughly 600 emergency calls a year, and is usually on the scene of an about 10 minutes after a call comes in.

Rocky Point Volunteer Fire Department is actively working to add housing at their fire station so that crews can sleep there overnight, and not have to come from their homes to the station before heading out to an emergency call.

While those changes will help address the issues specific to Rocky Point, county commissioners are trying to decide how to address the rest of the county. Atkinson and Penderlea Volunteer Fire Departments don't have any paid staff, and rely exclusively on volunteers when a fire breaks out.

"We're starting to hear from the other rural districts," Pender County Commissioner David Williams said. "It's no knock on whatever department may cover them, but they see the benefits of having full-time paid firefighters."

Williams said commissioners also have to weigh the considerable cost of adding paid staff.

"The days of running a fire department off of chicken cook-offs and pig pickins and things like that, it takes a lot more than that. It takes significant tax dollars," Williams said.

On the flip side, he said home insurance costs are likely to drop as a result of improved fire district rating, offsetting potential increases in fire fees for residents.

Williams would like to see the county hire a consultant to do an in-depth cost benefit analysis so residents could see exactly how much it would cost to add full-time firefighters to their departments, and how much they could expect to save on their insurance bill. He said that information will help them make an informed decision on the best way to proceed with improving fire services.

Copyright 2017 WECT. All rights reserved.