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Currituck OKs firefighter district in Corolla

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Shown are paid staff members of Currituck Fire-EMS assigned to the Corolla fire station (l-r) firefighter/emergency medical technician Michael McClain; Lt. Mark Soady; firefighter/paramedic Adam Hans; firefighter/paramedic Sean Wilson; and firefighter/EMT Chris Snyder.

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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Monday, May 28, 2018

CURRITUCK — Currituck commissioners have approved a new firefighting district tax in Corolla that will fund paid firefighters and paramedics at the Outer Banks community’s two fire stations.

The Board of Commissioners voted 5-2 last week to both create a new firefighting district and impose the new tax starting July 1. Initially the tax rate for Corolla property owners will be 5 cents per $100 of valuation, but county staff said they plan to work to reduce it.

Commissioners Kitty Etheridge and Mike Hall cast the lone “no” votes against creating the new district, which will extend from the Currituck County-Dare County line to the North Beach Ramp at the end of N.C. Highway 12. Etheridge said favored delaying action on the proposal because approval of the county’s proposed budget for 2018-19 is pending.

Driving the need for the paid firefighters, county officials have said, is the quality of current firefighting services in Corolla. 

In the past, Corolla Fire and Rescue — one of six volunteer fire departments in the county — has relied on volunteer firefighters and paid paramedics cross-trained as firefighters to provide fire protection services. The Corolla department also has mutual aid agreements with fire departments like the one in neighboring Duck, in Dare County.

However, Corolla Fire and Rescue, in a long-range planning report in 2016, noted it has only six certified firefighters and that the average age of its firefighters is 67. The report also noted that two firefighters suffered serious injuries because of their age.

The master plan said the department’s number of calls were expected to increase, adding to the burden on its limited number of certified firefighters. The plan also noted that Corolla’s population didn’t offer much prospect for recruiting younger volunteers.

The plan concluded the only viable solution for the department was to augment the volunteers with paid firefighters. The alternative was to risk potential disaster, the report said.

A survey taken in Corolla also showed 94 percent of respondents were willing to pay additional taxes for enhanced fire protection.

With that in mind, Corolla Fire and Rescue proposed the county create a fire district in the community and impose a 4 cent tax rate on Corolla property owners. Revenue from the tax would fund two paid firefighters at each of Corolla’s fire stations.

To stand up a paid firefighting staff, Currituck-Fire EMS secured a three-year, $1.5 million federal grant. The grant currently pays for three paid firefighters at each station who are cross-trained as paramedics and two paid paramedics who are cross-trained to fight fires. The county wants to add another firefighter to each station.

The federal grant pays up to 75 percent of the firefighters’ cost for two years and up to 35 percent the third year. County officials said the fire district tax in Corolla was the fairest way to pay for the paid firefighters and medics after the grant expires.

Currituck Fire-EMS Chief Chip Melton told commissioners the paid firefighters are needed to help Corolla Fire Rescue meet national firefighting standards. He pointed out that National Fire Protection Association standards require a fire agency to have a minimum of six firefighters certified to enter a structure on fire.

Not everyone is happy with the new firefighting district or the new tax. Critics of the proposal told commissioners Currituck Fire-EMS and most county leaders want to overspend for fire protection in Corolla.

Al Marzetti, president of the Corolla Fire and Rescue Squad, said there needs to be a balance between fire safety and what property owners can afford.  

"Do we really need the capability of somebody going in the burning building to save the proverbial, the hypothetical grandma?" Marzetti asked.

He said that most fires in Corolla break out in the off-season when almost all rental cottages are vacant.

“We’re never going to send a firefighter in to protect a vacant structure,” he said.

Marzetti said two out of three fires start outside a house, usually because of corroded wires caused by the surrounding marine environment.

Marzetti also expressed concerns about how to keep volunteer firefighters engaged if most of the firefighting is performed by paid staff.

The proposal also had supporters, however.

Tim Bosthaph told commissioners he had served as Corolla Fire and Rescue Squad’s president for nearly a year until he was “unceremoniously voted out” five days earlier by the rest of the board.

Bosthaph didn’t openly elaborate on the reasons why, telling commissioners, “You can figure it out yourself.”

Bosthaph pointed out it was Corolla Fire and Rescue that went to the county seeking help with firefighting. He also claimed he was the one who came up with the idea of a 4-cent tax rate to pay for professional firefighters, basing the figure on property data provided by Currituck officials.

Bosthaph said some critics of the firefighting district argue Corolla doesn’t need year-round paid firefighters because so few residents live there. But he pointed to the fact that a number of businesses are remaining open after the summer season, and some are remaining open all year.

He also said that for the past 10 years there have been only two months — December and July — in which there hasn’t been a serious fire in Corolla.

“We are having more tourists year-round,” he said. “Our tourist season expands more each year and, as most of us moan about it with too many people, Corolla is no longer just a summer place — and fire knows no seasons.”

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