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Currituck eyes Corolla tax for firefighters

Chip Melton.jpg

Currituck Fire-EMS Chief Chip Melton

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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Monday, May 21, 2018

CURRITUCK — Currituck commissioners will hear from the public tonight on a county proposal to pay for full-time firefighters in Corolla by raising the property tax rate in the Outer Banks community by 5 cents.

A hearing on the proposal, which seeks to raise the tax rate in Corolla from 48 cents per $100 of valuation to 53 cents, is scheduled for 6 p.m. at the Historic County Courthouse.

County officials say the new fire district tax, if approved, will help fund a hybrid firefighting service in Corolla that features full-time Currituck Fire-EMS personnel supported by Corolla Fire and Rescue volunteers.

Imposing the additional tax in Corolla would help the county continue to fund 16 cross-trained firefighters and medics that currently are funded through a $1.5 million federal grant, county officials said.

Both Currituck Fire-EMS Chief Chip Melton and Deputy Fire-EMS Chief Tim Riley said the grant is for three years. The first two years, the grant covers 75 percent of the firefighters’ cost. In the third year, however, the federal share falls to 35 percent.

What the county hopes to do, according to county documents, is keep the firefighter-medics it has now and add three more. All 19 firefighter-medics will be assigned to work in shifts at Corolla Fire and Rescue’s two stations.

Currently, each Corolla station includes three firefighters who are cross-trained as medics and two ambulance personnel cross-trained to fight fires. The goal, according to the county, is to have enough paid personnel available at any one time that, combined with volunteers, Corolla Fire and Rescue can respond to any emergency with at least eight firefighters.

“It’ll give us, for the first time in the Corolla district, the ability to keep small fires small and to rescue anybody that’s rescueable that might be trapped inside a fire,” Melton said.

According to Melton, one issue driving the need for paid firefighters in Corolla is the average age of volunteer firefighters in the Outer Banks area. Up until recently it was 67.

Riley also noted that, although Corolla Fire and Rescue has 33-35 volunteers on its roster, only six are qualified to fight fires inside a structure. The rest are support personnel, he said.

Riley noted that federal rules require that if two firefighters enter a structure to fight a fire, at least two other firefighters stationed outside have to be capable of entering the structure to rescue them.

All of those factors — volunteers’ availability, their average age and physical capabilities — have created a situation in Corolla that is “not sufficient for fighting fires,” Melton said.

As a result, the Corolla Fire and Rescue department has been relying for firefighting help on Currituck Fire-EMS personnel assigned to ambulances at each of the two stations in Corolla. Some of the ambulance personnel are cross-trained as firefighters, he said.

Corolla Fire and Rescue also has had to rely on its mutual aid agreements with fire departments in neighboring Dare County like the one in Duck, Melton said. But that’s problematic because while Duck’s fire station is adequate for Duck, it can’t fight fires in Duck and Corolla at the same time, he said.

According to the county, an internal study completed by Corolla Fire and Rescue in August 2016 showed the nonprofit agency was no longer capable of providing dependable fire service in Corolla with just an all-volunteer force.

A lot of the reason has to do with the community’s growing population, particularly during the summer, and the increasing size of its homes and the numbers of people occupying them.

According to county documents, the resident population of the proposed Corolla fire service district area was approximately 450 in 2010. However, at the height of the tourist season, the population can grow to 60,000.

Riley said there are at least 359 houses in Corolla that are more than 4,200 square feet. Those homes, during the tourist season, can each have anywhere from 16 to 30 occupying them.

According to the county, Corolla Fire and Rescue surveyed Corolla property owners about whether they would be willing to pay a tax to fund a fire service district. Some 1,500 people responded by postcard or online to the survey, with 94 percent supporting a paid firefighting service in Corolla.

“The reason the county went ahead with the hiring (of the 16 new full-time personnel) was because of the survey,” Melton said.

Despite that level of support, Melton and Riley both anticipate opposition to the fire district tax at Monday’s public hearing.

“There’s some people concerned now because some misinformation has been put out there,” Melton said. “Some people have gotten spooked that it (the enhanced fire protection plan) was not what it’s supposed to be.”

Melton said a letter has been circulating in Corolla claiming that the service Currituck Fire-EMS is currently providing isn’t what residents asked for. He said Fire-EMS is providing what Corolla residents wanted, only it’s in a slightly different format because it stretches personnel across three shifts instead of four.

Melton also said there are Corolla residents who don’t believe the fire district tax rate will remain at 5 cents.

Corolla Fire and Rescue Squad President Al Marzetti is one of them. Marzetti said in an interview he plans to address commissioners about the proposal at tonight’s hearing.

Marzetti said Corolla Fire and Rescue doesn’t mind the help from paid firefighters, but he believes the county wants to provide fire service in Corolla in excess of what’s reasonably required and what taxpayers can afford.

Marzetti said by wanting to have four paid firefighters on the first fire truck to leave the station, the county seems to envision Corolla Fire and Rescue responding like an urban fire department. He thinks that standard is excessive.

“For a rural department, two going out on a truck is fine. And that’s what we need to get there and get water on the fire,” he said.

Marzetti said he and other Corolla residents are concerned that the 5-cent tax increase won’t be enough to sustain more paid firefighters, especially given the $1.5 million federal grant will be expiring in a few years.

“I think our sense is that, for a number of reasons, that the five cents will increase quite a bit in the future, especially if you lose your volunteer force. They’ll then have to hire more paid staff,” he said.

Marzetti believes hiring more paid staff will have an impact on volunteers’ participation in the Corolla Fire and Rescue Squad. He noted that, historically, the number of volunteer firefighters decrease whenever hybrid fire departments grow.

Marzetti said volunteers want to participate in providing fire protection in Corolla, noting that Corolla Fire and Rescue’s new chief recently recruited seven new applicants, almost all of whom are under age 35. But that desire is almost certain to decline, he suggested, if volunteers feel they’re not needed.

“If someone else is doing all the work, you’re not contributing. After a while, it becomes less rewarding,” he said.

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