During a joint meeting of the Town of Franklin, the Town of Highlands and the Macon County Board of Commissioners, Warren Cabe informed local officials that fire departments in Macon County are in jeopardy due to a decrease of volunteers.
Of the 11 fire districts in the county, there are approximately 400 volunteer firefighters. According to Macon County Fire Marshal Jimmy Teem, each fire department has to have a minimum of 20 members (18 firefighters, two traffic control officers). “If a department has a substation then that would require that fire department to have an additional eight firefighters for each substation in that district,” explained Teem. “Cowee, Otto, Clarks Chapel, Mountain Valley and West Macon have one substation each and Nantahala is working to get a substation online in the near future.”
With the bulk of firefighters in the county being volunteers, if volunteer numbers continue to decrease, Macon County would be forced to look at consolidating fire houses, explained Cabe. Otto, Cowee, Cullasaja Gorge, West Macon and Clarks Chapel each have one paid fireman. Franklin has three paid firemen, Highlands has two paid firemen, and Nantahala has one part time fireman and the rest are volunteers,” explained Teem.
Cabe informed officials that the training requirement has an affect on the number of volunteers in the county. “N.C. Office of State Fire Marshal requires 36 hours per year of fire training to be a volunteer firefighter,” said Cabe. “Most of the education is basic knowledge in general firefighting.”
Cabe told officials that some of the people willing to be volunteer firefighters often find it difficult to find time to complete the training hours. If the number of volunteers continue to decline, Cabe noted that the cost of homeowners’ insurance will increase. “Departments will experience problems maintaining their certifications,” Cabe said. “If they don’t have sufficient numbers to maintain their status with NC OSFM they may go from a protection class 9 to a PC 10 which is essentially the same as not having a fire department and homeowners insurance rates would increase if they could even purchase a policy at all.”
According to Cabe, depending on what class rating a fire department receives, homeowners can experience substantial savings in insurance.
“To get a class 9, the department must exist, have a minimum amount of equipment and 20 members with at least 36 hours of training,” said Cabe. “Departments must request to undergo a N.C. ratings and Response Inspection which actually measures performance of a department over a 1-3 year period. Inspection lasts about a week and has an administrative part and a practical exercise part. Departments don’t try for any particular number but they will get whatever they get, either for better or for worse. We had a 6 in the city and a 9 in our rural area and we certainly think that will improve but we won’t know until we get the grading numbers back.”
Franklin Fire and Rescue, which just completed the class rating process, is expected to go from a class 7 to a class 5, which could mean an average of $235 dollars in savings for houses costing $100,000 in rural areas. If the number of volunteers continue to decrease, the class rating will go back up and cost taxpayers more money.
In addition to costing more on insurance, the lack of volunteers could result in consolidating districts, which Cabe predicts may be something to be discussed within the next five years. Fire departments are often considered staples of a community’s identity, and consolidating departments is sure to come with resistance, but may be the only option.
Volunteer firefighters respond to an array of calls ranging from fires, medical, rescue, severe weather, missing persons, motor vehicle accidents and non-emergency public assist calls. According to Teem, from July 25, 2011, to July 26, 2012, Franklin's department answered 1,572 calls, Highlands answered 518 calls, Clarks Chapel 359 calls, Otto 362 calls, Burningtown/Iotla 122 calls, Cullasaja Gorge 301 calls, West Macon 260 calls, Cowee 187 calls, Scaly Mountain 115 calls, Nantahala 128 calls, and Mountain Valley answered 91 calls. With Macon County's unique terrain, without an adequate number of volunteers, public safety begins to become a factor.