NC to intervene in KI impasse
By Reggie Ponder
Saturday, November 11, 2017
KNOTTS ISLAND — Officials from the N.C. Fire Marshal’s Office plan to visit Currituck next week to try and help resolve a contract impasse that led the Knotts Island Volunteer Fire Department to abruptly suspend fire services this week, the department’s chief said Friday.
Derek Morgan, chief of the Knotts Island VFD, said his department’s decision to discontinue fire services on Wednesday was triggered by state officials telling the VFD that because it lacks a contract with Currituck County, its volunteer firefighters would not be covered by state benefits in the event they died in the line of duty. Morgan said the department has to protect its personnel.
Chip Melton, Currituck’s chief of fire and emergency medical services, said Morgan told him the department’s concerns about the death benefits for volunteers. But according to Melton, the state told him the benefits would not lapse as long as the county and the department were negotiating in good faith. Melton added that he would be glad to certify that the parties are negotiating a contract in good faith.
Morgan said he has spoken with the Office of the State Fire Marshal and was told its representatives will be in Currituck next week. The state will try to mediate the negotiations between the county and the volunteer fire department, Morgan said.
In the meantime, Virginia Beach, Va., firefighters have continued their emergency support to Knotts Island to ensure there’s no interruption of fire service, Melton said. In addition, Currituck County has beefed up its paid staff at Knotts Island as an emergency stop-gap measure.
Melton said the mutual aid agreement with Virginia Beach has been in place for some time. Virginia Beach responds to Knotts Island fires from a station in Creeds.
In addition, Currituck County provides EMS services using personnnel who are cross-trained fire and EMS professionals. The county already had a two-person team on Knotts Island and now has added two additional paid county personnel, Melton said.
Each volunteer fire department in Curriuck — there are six in the county — is offered a contract every year, according to Melton. Knotts Island rejected its contract but got an extension through Oct. 31, according to Melton.
Currituck Commissioner Paul Beaumont, who serves on the county’s Fire Advisory Board, said this year’s contracts for the volunteer fire departments were nearly identical to last year’s but included some new language that clarified Melton’s role as a liaison between the departments and the county commissioners or county manager.
The county wants to establish a level of service so residents can know what to expect and has taken steps to offer centralized training and a county fire training coordinator, according to Beaumont.
The goal is to provide a higher level of training locally, Beaumont said. The county is not dictating how the volunteer departments spend their budget but is looking for documentation of training and there has been some resistance to that, he said.
Beaumont said the county’s position is that departments should operate in a similar manner in order to provide economies of scale in areas such as purchasing.
Although there was a budget-related disagreement with the county, that was not a deal-breaker, Morgan said. The main issue for the volunteers was to have in writing from the county that the county would provide paid staff who are certified firefighters and at least one paid staff member per shift who has a license to drive the fire engine, he said.
In addition, Morgan said the volunteer fire department wanted to receive the contract at least 90 days before it was due to be signed. Volunteers want more flexibility in purchasing needed equipment, flexibility in how they get their training, and the right to title equipment in the name of the volunteer fire department if it’s purchased entirely with funds raised by volunteers, according to Morgan.
Morgan said the county did not offer to negotiate with the volunteer fire department. He also said the department had thought it would get another contract extension but did not. Currituck’s Station Four and Station Five got extensions through June but Knotts Island did not get an extension beyond Oct. 31, he said.
“The biggest thing is that nobody has come to us,” Morgan said.
Beaumont, however, contends it was the Knotts Island volunteer department that did not maintain communication with the county.
“I can’t force a department to sign a contract,” Beaumont added.
Following the Knotts Island VFD’s decision to suspend services, Melton said the county used social media to notify citizens on Knotts Island of the steps they were taking to continue fire protection. He emphasized that there has been no interruption in fire service.
"We made sure that didn't happen," Melton said.
In fact, from a service delivery standpoint Knotts Island residents are better off now than they were before because there are four dedicated county personnel assigned to Knotts Island compared with two previously, according to Melton.
But the reassignment of personnel is an "emergency stop-gap measure," according to Melton. The county cannot continue to provide the additional personnel on Knotts Island long term without some kind of budget adjustment by county officials, he said.
The county leadership should determine some kind of long-term plan for Knotts Island fire service next week, Melton said.
Melton said Knotts Island's challenge is that it's remote, and it takes 30 minutes for backup to arrive from the mainland or at least 20 minutes for help to come from Virginia Beach.
Melton said the question for county officials right now is whether a better job can be done — within the available funding — of providing fire service for Knotts Island. County officials have to make that long-term decision, he said.