Hybrid fire agency eyed for Knotts Island
By William F. West
Friday, December 15, 2017
KNOTTS ISLAND — Currituck County Manager Dan Scanlon told Knotts Island residents this week the county hasn’t settled yet on a final solution for their long-term fire protection. However, officials would like to see a combination of paid and volunteer firefighters responding to emergency calls in the remote community, he said.
Scanlon told the approximately 100 people attending a town hall at Knotts Island Elementary School on Tuesday that a “hybrid” fire department right now is preferable to an all-volunteer department or all-paid department because the former wouldn’t be reliable enough and the latter would be too expensive.
Scanlon, along with six county commissioners, held the town hall to address Knotts Island residents’ concerns in the wake of their community volunteer fire department’s decision to cease operations last month. The Knotts Island Volunteer Fire Department stopped providing fire protection on Nov. 8, citing an impasse with the county over its request for a contract extension.
Since then, Currituck Fire-EMS has been providing round-the-clock fire protection with four paid personnel while county officials search for a long-term solution on Knotts Island.
Scanlon expressed the county’s appreciation to those in the audience Tuesday who had served with the Knotts Island VFD in the past. But he suggested that even if the department wanted to restart service right now, it wouldn’t be able to.
Scanlon indicated county officials are no longer convinced the VFD is capable of providing an adequate level of service to ensure Knotts Island residents are protected from fires. The VFD in fact had only 10 volunteers prior to its suspension of service, county officials have said.
“They need your help,” Scanlon told the audience, referring to the Knotts Island VFD. “If we want to have a viable volunteer service (on Knotts Island), and if we want to move forward as a volunteer (department), they need more help.”
Scanlon suggested that if the Knotts Island VFD was able to attract more volunteers, “guaranteeing you that when the (fire alarm) comes out, someone’s coming,” the county would be open to discussions on a new contract with the department.
“If they can get to that level, then a conversation could be had (on a new contract). But, we’re not there,” he said.
Scanlon said the county welcomes volunteer firefighters with “open arms.” He noted that if the county went to an all-paid firefighting service on Knotts Island it would have to create a special taxation district in the community, and that the annual cost of providing fire service in Knotts Island would be approximately $500,000.
Normally paying that cost would fall on the shoulders of Knotts Island taxpayers, he said. “The problem is, unfortunately, the tax valuation in Knotts Island is not that high,” he said.
Earlier during Tuesday’s meeting, Commissioner Bob White, whose district includes Knotts Island, said having a paid-only firefighting force on Knotts Island would likely raise the property tax rate there between 15 and 20 cents per $100 of valuation. That would translate to a tax increase of between $200 and $400 on a residence worth $100,000, he said.
That potentially large tax hike for Knotts Island taxpayers is why Scanlon said he’s not recommending the county go to a paid-only fire department there.
“The reason we’re not throwing that on the table is I’m not suggesting that,” he said. “It’s an excessive tax rate, but it’s on the table so that you understand when you say, ‘I want a paid system,’ that’s what you’re asking for.”
Scanlon emphasized the county is still exploring options and funding models for providing fire protection on Knotts Island.
“The board is being very deliberate and going very slowly to make sure that we explore these options and that what we come forward with, that we get it right in the very beginning,” he said.
White told the audience that commissioners plan to discuss the Knotts Island fire protection issue at their annual retreat next month.
“When we get done with that, I expect we’ll be coming back to you all to talk to you again, with some ideas about what we’re going to do or would propose to do to help you guys out here,” he said.
While all options will be given discussion, Scanlon said he’s pretty certain a paid-only force won’t be the one chosen.
“If I go to them at the retreat and say, ‘My recommendation is to raise the taxes 20 cents on the citizens of Knotts Island,’ they're going to shoot me,” he said.
That’s why the county’s preference for Knotts Island right now is for some combination of paid and volunteer firefighters, Scanlon said.
“Some combination system or something in the middle is more than likely where we come to, but we can’t have that conversation until the community embraces what these men and women are doing,” he said.
A few now-former Knotts Island volunteer firefighters also spoke at Tuesday’s meeting.
Chris Florio said he believes there’s been “a disconnect” between Knotts Island VFD members and the department’s leadership over the VFD’s contact with the county. He noted that he and other VFD members only found out about the lapsed contract after the fact.
Florio said he was concerned when he discovered the Knotts Island VFD wasn’t responding to calls. He was then confused, he said, when he learned that, even as a department member, he couldn’t climb aboard a fire truck and respond to an emergency without first filling out a new application form.
Florio said he has since picked up an application to join the Currituck Fire-EMS as a volunteer.
Barbara Hill, who also was a Knotts Island volunteer prior to suspension of the department’s service, also cited a lack of communication for the VFD’s current predicament. She called for getting as many volunteers as possible signed up to assist the county’s paid firefighters at the Knotts Island fire station.
“There’s people in here that are fighting these fires and going to these houses that don’t know a hill of beans about these people,” she said.
Hill said volunteers who live on Knotts Island, on the other hand, know the residents and can better advise them during emergencies.
“We need to get our people back on those trucks and on these ambulances, helping out,” she said to polite applause.
“You’re absolutely right,” Currituck-Fire EMS Chief Chip Melton said in response.
Melton emphasized those wanting to serve as volunteers can fill out applications at the Knotts Island fire station. Residents are also invited to attend one of two workshops on firefighting the county is hosting at the Knotts Island Fire Station. The first will be Monday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., the second will be on Dec. 30 from 10 a.m. to noon.
As of Wednesday, the county had received seven applications for volunteer firefighter positions, Currituck Fire-EMS Deputy Chief Tim Riley said.