TOP 10 STORIES OF 2017: No. 10
Knotts Island VFD ceases operations
By William F. West
Friday, December 22, 2017
Editor’s note: Our annual review of the top stories of 2017 begins today.
KNOTTS ISLAND — Knotts Island residents were concerned about the future of fire protection in their community at year’s end — but probably less so than immediately after the community’s volunteer fire chief, citing a contract impasse, abruptly suspended his department's operations on Nov. 8.
That’s because Currituck Fire-EMS stationed four paid firefighting and emergency medical personnel at the Knotts Island Fire Station a day after Knotts Island VFD suspended operations. Currituck commissioners then voted at their Dec. 4 meeting to keep the paid firefighters on Knotts Island until they decide on a permanent solution for providing fire protection in the remote community.
During the Dec. 4 meeting, Currituck County Manager Dan Scanlon acknowledged that there had been a lot of confusion and misinformation about fire protection on Knotts Island.
Illustrating that confusion, Knotts Island VFD Chief Derek Morgan said in an interview that he shut down his department’s operations after learning the department’s annual contract with the county had lapsed on Oct. 31 and was not being extended. He suggested the two sides had reached an impasse over the contract.
Currituck Fire-EMS Chief Chip Melton, however, said in an interview the county had no intention of renewing its annual contract with the Knotts Island VFD as its currently staffed. Citing the department’s lack of manpower, he said the VFD wasn’t capable of providing adequate fire protection on Knotts Island.
County officials responded by conducting a town hall-like meeting with approximately 100 Knotts Islanders on Dec. 12 in the Knotts Island Elementary School gymnasium.
Commissioner Bob White, whose district includes Knotts Island, told residents that commissioners met with the county’s senior staff in January to discuss the county’s annual contracts with its six volunteer fire departments. As a result of that discussion, the county made changes to the proposed contracts that included adding some common training and equipment standards as a way to ensure greater accountability. The county spends hundreds of thousands of dollars a year allocating taxpayer funds to the VFDs.
White said after the proposed documents were sent out to all six volunteer fire departments in June, the Knotts Island, Crawford and Lower Currituck departments responded by rejecting the contracts.
According to White, Knotts Island VFD officials struck through the word “cooperate” with Currituck Fire-EMS, refused to coordinate training with Currituck Fire-EMS and wanted to be able to spend thousands of dollars without county approval.
White said the Crawford and Lower Currituck departments eventually agreed to the county’s terms and asked for and received contract extensions through June 2018. The Knotts Island department, however, didn’t ask for a contract extension, he said.
Commissioners held the Dec. 12 town hall meeting after Knotts Island resident Heidi White presented the county with a petition she said supported having paid firefighters respond to fires and emergencies on Knotts Island.
Commissioner White told residents at the meeting, however, that having a fire department with only paid firefighters would be costly for them. He said a paid-only fire department, without volunteer firefighters, could cost Knotts Islanders an additional 15-20 cents on their county property tax rate. That could translate into a tax increase of between $200 and $400 for a property owner with a $100,000 house, he said.
Scanlon also told the audience if the county went to an all-paid firefighting service on Knotts Island, the cost would be approximately $500,000. He noted that Knotts Island’s tax valuation isn't that high.
Because of the excessive expense, Scanlon said he envisions having instead a hybrid fire service on Knotts Island that includes both paid and volunteer firefighters. Both he and Melton encouraged Knotts Island residents to volunteer as firefighters under what would be a county-directed department.
To beef up the county’s firefighting force on Knotts Island, the county held a workshop for potential volunteers at the Knotts Island Fire Station in mid-December. Another workshop was scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 30 from 10 to noon.
The recruiting process seemed to be going well at year’s end. One county official said that seven Knotts Islanders so far had applied for volunteer firefighter positions.