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Whiteville FD struggles to provide enough manpower

Whiteville Fire Chief David Yergeau wrestles daily with staffing and equipment issues that can impact everything from saving lives to how much homeowners and business owners pay in insurance premiums. While some relief is in sight for equipment, Yergeau sees no ready answers to staffing problems without an eventual tax increase.

Lieutenant Kyle McDaniel, dressed in full gear, exits a fire truck. Total cost of turnout gear and air packs for one firefighter is about $10,000.

Captain Mark Rowan checks air packs on a fire truck during a routine inspection of equipment.

Captain Mark Rowan checks air packs on a fire truck during a routine inspection of equipment.

City Manager Darren Currie reluctantly agrees, saying the only way to avoid a tax increase would be to cut services in some other area.

The city uses a combination of full-time firefighters and part-time firefighters, who are paid but typically respond to calls from their homes or businesses.

“I’ve been asking for more personnel in the budget ever since I got here eight years ago,” Yergeau says. “I know it’s a difficult problem for city council to solve. And payroll is a recurring item. Payroll’s not like equipment, which usually is a one-time purchase. And I realize the fire department is not the only department in the city that’s understaffed. The whole city government probably is understaffed…The only way I see for us to maintain a good service level is to fund more positions.”

Yergeau has been sharing those concerns with city council in monthly reports for some time now. He notes that there are continuing struggles to meet minimum standards to maintain the city’s ISO (insurance) rating of four.

Lieutenant Kyle McDaniel, dressed in full gear, exits a fire truck. Total cost of turnout gear and air packs for one firefighter is about $10,000.

Lieutenant Kyle McDaniel, dressed in full gear, exits a fire truck. Total cost of turnout gear and air packs for one firefighter is about $10,000.

Ratings range on a scale of one to 10, with one being the best and 10 being the worst. The fire chief has a goal of reducing the city’s rating to three, which probably would result in a 10 to 15 percent decrease in fire insurance premiums for city residents and businesses.

But for now he is juggling resources just to maintain the city’s current rating of 4. The Office of the State Fire Marshal (OSFM) rates departments throughout the state. Inspections are done every 5-8 years and the city’s last inspection was in 2017.

“Ideally, we need a minimum of six firefighters on duty every day, so we actually need about eight assigned on each shift,” Yergeau says. “It really would take 27 full-time employees to guarantee six on duty at all times.”

“We’ve been sending trucks out with two people but you really can’t function with two people. One person has to run the truck, or pump, and the other has to be pulling hose. You need a third person who can go inside the house or building.”

While national standards used by the OSFM require a minimum of four personnel for every fire alarm call (with any response with less than four considered to be no response at all), the Whiteville Fire Department has been averaging only 1.13 on duty and 1.48 off duty personnel per incident. The department has been averaging nine firefighters per working structure incident, below the national required standard of 14 firefighters on scene.

One bright spot is that an equipment shortage, which could potentially affect the department’s rating, will be resolved in coming months. City council this month authorized ordering a new $600,000 fire engine that will replace a 30-year-old unit that will not pass the DOT safety inspection. The new engine, which must be custom manufactured, will probably take between nine and 12 months to be completed. In the meantime, the city is relying on two other engines and an aging ladder truck. The department needs three front-line fire engines and a ladder truck to meet ISO standards. The price tag for a new ladder truck could hit the $1 million mark.

It’s personnel, not equipment, that is Yergeau’s most immediate concern, however.

The Whiteville Fire Department is busy. It responded to 122 incidents in August, 67 of which were fire calls and 82 of which were for medical first responder calls. Some calls involved both fire and EMS responses.

Captain Mark Rowan, left, and Lt. Kyle McDaniel were the only full-time staff guaranteed to respond to a call Wednesday afternoon.

Captain Mark Rowan, left, and Lt. Kyle McDaniel were the only full-time staff guaranteed to respond to a call Wednesday afternoon.

The department averaged 5.58 personnel per structural incident, well below the 14 firefighters within eight minutes as required by national standards. The average response time (dispatch to arrival) was 4 minutes 35 seconds, while the average time from dispatch to having units en route was 1 minute 20 seconds. Overall, the department averaged 4.1 personnel per incident in August. “Overlapping incidents (are) stretching resources and delaying response to the citizens,” Yergeau told city council in his August report.Whiteville Fire Chief David Yergeau wrestles daily with staffing and equipment issues that can impact everything from saving lives to how much homeowners and business owners pay in insurance premiums. While some relief is in sight for equipment, Yergeau sees no ready answers to staffing problems without an eventual tax increase.

Lieutenant Kyle McDaniel, dressed in full gear, exits a fire truck. Total cost of turnout gear and air packs for one firefighter is about $10,000.

City Manager Darren Currie reluctantly agrees, saying the only way to avoid a tax increase would be to cut services in some other area.

The city uses a combination of full-time firefighters and part-time firefighters, who are paid but typically respond to calls from their homes or businesses.

“I’ve been asking for more personnel in the budget ever since I got here eight years ago,” Yergeau says. “I know it’s a difficult problem for city council to solve. And payroll is a recurring item. Payroll’s not like equipment, which usually is a one-time purchase. And I realize the fire department is not the only department in the city that’s understaffed. The whole city government probably is understaffed…The only way I see for us to maintain a good service level is to fund more positions.”

Yergeau has been sharing those concerns with city council in monthly reports for some time now. He notes that there are continuing struggles to meet minimum standards to maintain the city’s ISO (insurance) rating of four.

Ratings range on a scale of one to 10, with one being the best and 10 being the worst. The fire chief has a goal of reducing the city’s rating to three, which probably would result in a 10 to 15 percent decrease in fire insurance premiums for city residents and businesses.

But for now he is juggling resources just to maintain the city’s current rating of 4. The Office of the State Fire Marshal (OSFM) rates departments throughout the state. Inspections are done every 5-8 years and the city’s last inspection was in 2017.

“Ideally, we need a minimum of six firefighters on duty every day, so we actually need about eight assigned on each shift,” Yergeau says. “It really would take 27 full-time employees to guarantee six on duty at all times.”

“We’ve been sending trucks out with two people but you really can’t function with two people. One person has to run the truck, or pump, and the other has to be pulling hose. You need a third person who can go inside the house or building.”

While national standards used by the OSFM require a minimum of four personnel for every fire alarm call (with any response with less than four considered to be no response at all), the Whiteville Fire Department has been averaging only 1.13 on duty and 1.48 off duty personnel per incident. The department has been averaging nine firefighters per working structure incident, below the national required standard of 14 firefighters on scene.

Captain Mark Rowan, left, and Lt. Kyle McDaniel were the only full-time staff guaranteed to respond to a call Wednesday afternoon.

One bright spot is that an equipment shortage, which could potentially affect the department’s rating, will be resolved in coming months. City council this month authorized ordering a new $600,000 fire engine that will replace a 30-year-old unit that will not pass the DOT safety inspection. The new engine, which must be custom manufactured, will probably take between nine and 12 months to be completed. In the meantime, the city is relying on two other engines and an aging ladder truck. The department needs three front-line fire engines and a ladder truck to meet ISO standards. The price tag for a new ladder truck could hit the $1 million mark.

It’s personnel, not equipment, that is Yergeau’s most immediate concern, however.

The Whiteville Fire Department is busy. It responded to 122 incidents in August, 67 of which were fire calls and 82 of which were for medical first responder calls. Some calls involved both fire and EMS responses.

The department averaged 5.58 personnel per structural incident, well below the 14 firefighters within eight minutes as required by national standards. The average response time (dispatch to arrival) was 4 minutes 35 seconds, while the average time from dispatch to having units en route was 1 minute 20 seconds. Overall, the department averaged 4.1 personnel per incident in August. “Overlapping incidents (are) stretching resources and delaying response to the citizens,” Yergeau told city council in his August report.

Stuart Rogers