Volunteer Fire Departments Struggling With Numbers

MOUNDSVILLE – In the span of less than a year, two Marshall County volunteer fire departments closed their doors for good due to increasing insurance costs and a lack of interested volunteers.

Now, some of the county’s 15 remaining volunteer fire departments are struggling to remain in operation due to a lack of personnel.

“It is harder now because there are more training requirements,” 10-year Benwood Volunteer Fire Department member Garson Taylor said. “The days of just jumping on a truck and shooting water are over.”

Marshall County Administrator Betsy Frohnapfel said the former Fish Creek VFD ceased operations in 2011 due to a lack of members, while the former Big Wheeling Creek VFD closed that same year after failing to pay for its worker’s compensation insurance.

“Even if you can pay the bills, it’s just really hard to get people to do it now,” Benwood VFD Chief Mike Smith added.

Benwood Police Chief and Director of Public Safety Frank Longwell said a lack of available emergency medical personnel could create even more of a problem than having low numbers of firefighters.

“My biggest concern is with the ambulances. If there is some kind of a major accident somewhere, you are going to have a hard time getting enough ambulances,” he said. “A lot of places just don’t have the EMTs anymore.”

On April 5, a 12-inch natural gas pipeline leading to one of the Williams Energy processing plants in the county exploded, according the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Kelley J. Gillenwater.

This resulted in a fire that scorched trees over a 2-acre area, while sending nearby residents fleeing in a frenzy. Although this injured no residents, local officials know the risk is there.

“We have about 316 square miles to cover in this county.

Whenever you have a problem, people generally come together to deal with it,” Mike Mucheck, deputy director of Marshall County Emergency Management, said. “But we sure do not want to lose anymore VFDs.”

“We have a few departments that are struggling, but none of them have indicated they are going to have to close,” Frohnapfel said, though declining to identify which of the 15 are hurting the most. “The demands for new equipment, insurance and training go up every year. Truly, none of them have enough funds.”

Despite the concerns, both Frohnapfel and Mucheck said the county’s coverage area is not compromised.

“We have back-up plans to make sure we have enough people to respond to a particular area,” Mucheck said.

Frohnapfel said some of the oil and natural gas companies have provided training to volunteer firefighters so they are prepared to handle issues at the sites until professional well fire specialists arrive. Some of the companies also regularly donate funding to the local departments, she said.

“I would put our VFDs up against those from any other county,” Frohnapfel added. “They do a great job when called upon.”

According to Frohnapfel and Mucheck, active VFDs in Marshall County include: Benwood, Boggs Run, Cameron, Dallas, Fork Ridge, Glen Dale, Limestone, McMechen, Mount Olivet, Roberts Ridge, Saint Joseph, Sherrard, Washington Lands, Mozart and Moundsville, which also features a part-time professional department.

“You just have a hard time getting volunteers now. So many people have to work two jobs, plus it takes time away from being with your family,” Mucheck said.