The Fayette Tribune, Oak Hill, W.Va.

November 14, 2012

Officials discuss Smithers VFD woes

By C.V. Moore
The Register-Herald

FAYETTEVILLE — Fayette County officials are discussing the present and future viability of the Smithers Volunteer Fire Department, which lost its charter in 2005, according to the town’s mayor.

“It is no longer an incorporated fire department with the state,” Mayor Thomas Skaggs told the Fayette County Commission at its Friday meeting.

Officials are exploring options for providing fire protection to Smithers. Facing a litany of non-compliances, the department may temporarily become a substation of Montgomery Volunteer Fire Department until it can function independently.

Getting Fire Chief Tim Whittington, who has been accused of misuse of funds, to respond to any request is difficult, said Fayette County Fire Coordinator Steve Cruikshank.

The department is currently being audited.

The Kanawha County Commission has suspended payments in support of the department because it has not filed its annual IRS tax form 990.

The department has also quit turning in its fire reports, according to Cruikshank.

The state, too, has cut off funds for the department because it has not received documentation it requested.

That leaves Fayette County’s fire levy fund as its only financial support for paying the bills. The department forwards its utility bills to the county, which cuts the checks.

But the station’s utilities were cut off at one point for late payment.

“When you turn in bills three months late, after your utilities have been cut off, that’s just irresponsible,” says Cruikshank.

Utilities are reportedly all back on except for gas, which concerns some because it means the station has no heat. With fire trucks full of water, a pump could freeze and cause thousands of dollars in damage.

“The county needs to do what it can to protect the equipment because ultimately it could come back to us,” says Fayette County Prosecuting Attorney Carl Harris.

Some of the department’s officers don’t meet training standards, according to Cruikshank, and are out of compliance with the fire marshal.

“Without qualified, trained officers, it’s a serious issue of safety,” he said. “It’s not games we play. It’s going into burning buildings and getting out before they collapse. There are serious issues and the surrounding fire departments are concerned because they work with them.”

“We have some (firefighters in neighboring departments) that don’t want to go into a building with any Smithers firefighter,” says Skaggs. “They’ve literally had to drag them out by the coats to keep them from dying. ... They have an officer who doesn’t know how to turn the pump on.”

Cruikshank has shut the department down on several occasions in the past because the station did not have insurance on its vehicles, or because it did not maintain its workers’ compensation coverage.

Neither he nor Skaggs was able to say whether the department currently has liability insurance.

“Somebody needs to come in there and say, ‘We need to see your insurance for your vehicles.’ I got a report the other day that someone was driving under a license that had been revoked because of a DUI,” says Skaggs.

Some firefighters, including those who live in Smithers, who “don’t agree with the way things are being handled” have left the department for others, he says.

“This has been an ongoing situation with Smithers,” says Fayette County Commissioner John Lopez, a resident of Smithers. But he would like to see the town keep its department, ultimately.

Skaggs says he has asked the chief to step down, but currently the town has no ordinance in place to appoint a chief. The town’s attorney is working to draft such an ordinance to shore up the municipality’s authority over the department.

“My wish is that we become a substation of Montgomery on a temporary basis,” says Skaggs. “Give us time to get a board formed with at least two or three citizens at large with firefighting knowledge or experience to sit on the board. If they have to clean house, clean house.”

Skaggs says that would also give the town time to craft necessary ordinances, find qualified officers and develop a proper administration and structure so the department could be reformed.

In the meantime, equipment would stay at Smithers and Montgomery would be in charge of operations and administration.

The authority to place the department under Montgomery’s control would come from the State Fire Marshal’s Office, after a request from the Montgomery Fire Department and the Town of Smithers.

Cruikshank has not yet spoken with Montgomery about this option.

Other options include finding another fire department to provide protection for the town.

“We have to provide fire protection there,” says Skaggs. “We can’t be a city if we don’t.”

The commission has asked Cruikshank to go to the department and ask for its insurance paperwork. If it lacks any, it will be shut down.

Then Cruikshank is to meet the Montgomery Fire Department to see if it is receptive to taking control of Smithers temporarily. The mayor and council of Smithers will also be consulted to get a consensus.

Assuming all are in agreement, the state fire marshal will be approached with a request that the department become a substation of Montgomery.

- - -

At its Friday meeting, the Fayette County Commission also took up the following business:

-- The county’s towing service operators complain the rotation method used by emergency dispatchers is unfair. They, along with municipal and county representatives, will attend the next 911 Advisory Board meeting to discuss and address the issue.

-- The county is applying for a West Virginia Tower Assistance grant to fund a taller and more robust tower for the new Fayette County 911 Center.

-- The commission discussed whether and how hunting should continue to be allowed at Wolf Creek Park. The property is owned by the Fayette County Urban Renewal Authority.