At a December Pocahontas County Commission meeting, commissioner John Rebinski presented his proposal to use $170,000 of Hotel/Motel Tax revenue to be used for countywide EMS services. Rebinski said the funding would be used to hire EMS staff to work for volunteer departments in the northern part of the county – and later the central and southern parts.
The proposal has been met with contention from organizations which say they will stand to lose funding, but it has also received praise from EMS volunteers and supporters who see the need for more staffing at fire and rescue departments – which rely almost solely on volunteers.
In regard to Hotel/Motel Tax, the state requires 50 percent of the total revenue be given to the Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the county policy has set aside funding for the hospital, EMS, Fire Board and Brick and Mortar.
The funding for the hospital, EMS, Fire Board and Brick and Mortar has remained the same since 2015, although the amount of Hotel/Motel Tax has increased from roughly $1.2 million in the 2015-2016 fiscal year to more than $2.6 million in fiscal year 2021-2022.
Rebinski said in county commission meetings that he is proposing the increase in funding for EMS due to the decrease in volunteers at county departments, as well as the loss due to retirement of paid members.
There are six fire and rescue departments in Pocahontas County. Shavers Fork Fire and Rescue is funded through Snowshoe Mountain Resort. Marlinton Fire and Rescue and Bartow-Frank-Durbin Fire and Rescue both have two paid members. Cass, Frost and Hillsboro are 100 percent volunteer.
All departments have suffered a decrease in the number of volunteers and are seeing several members join departments in other counties where they are paid for their services.
“It takes a lot to become a volunteer EMT or firefighter,” Marlinton Fire Chief Herby Barlow said. He explained that those interested in joining any of the departments in the county need to go through a rigorous amount of training.
“For firefighter – 120 hours,” he said. “That includes both class time and they have to go through what they call a live burn scenario. It gives you some heat experience. Not what it’s truly like in an actual fire, but you’ve got to go in full gear and mask, and crawl through and weave your way in and out of the maze that they’ve got built in there.”
The state takes the firefighter training through a module system and students are required to go through three modules, then take a HAZMAT awareness class, pass the final test and then do the live burn.
“On the EMT side, it’s about the same number of hours,” Barlow said. “Once you get your EMT or paramedic, you have to maintain your certification. Every two years, your national card dies. Every four years, your state card dies.”
Those who choose to become paramedics do so after becoming certified EMTs. They take an 18-month course and then have to do ambulance runs and work hours in a hospital ER, OR, pediatrics, NICU and ICU.
Barlow said Marlinton Fire and Rescue pays for training for firefighters and EMTs, so it is free to the volunteers.
Fire departments receive funding in several ways. Barlow said one half of one percent of your homeowners insurance goes to the departments.
“I use most of that to pay for our compensation,” Barlow said. “I pay more than $20,000 a year for workers comp. I pay probably $10,000 a year on vehicle insurance, even for volunteers.”
Marlinton has a fire fee, which requires all residents in the town limits to pay a fee and Barlow said residents outside of town limits, but still in the department’s coverage area, may choose to pay the fee, as well.
The Marlinton department invested in two rental apartments which helps supplement the budget a bit.
It costs a lot to run a fire and rescue department. The workers comp, insurance and training bills are peanuts compared to the cost of equipment for each department.
To outfit a member in boots, pants, coat, gloves, hood and helmet costs $3,500. An additional $6,000 goes into the breathing aparatus personal alert safety system.
“Then you’re looking at a $500,000 fire truck, which the last three engines that we’ve bought, we’ve bought used,” Barlow said. “We’re trying to build a new ambulance. That’s looking to be $225,000, but we can’t get a chassis. They’re not building that many 3500 chassis which we need.”
Those numbers don’t include the equipment needed on the fire trucks and ambulances.
“A new heart monitor is $30,000, then you have to pay to get it inspected and serviced once a year,” Barlow said. “A loading cot is $30-to-$40,000. It’s crazy.”
If Marlinton responds to a two-car accident, it will send out two ambulances and at least two fire trucks, depending on the severity of the accident. That is more than $2 million worth of vehicles and equipment going out to a call, with two paid employees and up to six volunteers responding.
Several years ago, Barlow approached the county commission with a proposed countywide fire fee, but the issue was dropped because the departments could not agree on how to divvy out the funding.
Personally, Barlow said he doesn’t think taking Hotel/ Motel Tax funding will be enough to cover what all the departments need.
“I was accused of saying that we needed Hotel/Motel Tax,” he said. “That’s not what I want. I think it needs to go to everybody. I think we need a countywide fee, and I said $25 an hour. You need to pay a livable wage. Now that $25 an hour is a paramedic or level 2 firefighter – someone who has a lot of training and certification. That’s not a brand new person. That’s a livable wage and you’re going to have to pay benefits and all that.”
With the rosters at departments getting smaller and smaller, Barlow said he understands why there are fewer volunteers. They want to be paid for their time and the effort that goes into being a firefighter, EMT and paramedic. They want to be more than a volunteer – they want to make a living as a member of the department.
While he can’t say for certain that the COVID-19 pandemic is the cause for volunteers quitting, Barlow said it has led people to reconsider putting their own lives at risk.
“We left one of the county commission meetings and that same evening, on the national news, it said that last year, nationwide, fifty percent of paramedics left the job,” Barlow said. “Thirty percent of EMTs left the job. All this COVID stuff – how does that make you feel sitting in the back of an ambulance, knowing that the person is showing signs and symptoms of COVID? You’re going to leave there and go back to your house.
“We didn’t know and we still don’t know,” he added.
To Barlow, paying a living wage is the best way to get the rosters at departments back to the way they were when he started as a junior firefighter at the age of 14.
“We’ve lost a lot of folks, but I think it’s to the point where we’re going to have to pay a salary,” he said. “I know we’re a financially poor county as far as us people that live here, but if you did a countywide fee and charged every household – and when I say household, I’m talking about seasonal homes, hunting camps, your house, my house. I think you could do it, but it needs to be managed. Hard decisions will have to be made.”