Edneyville Fire Chief Robert Griffin, Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey and Brian Taylor, of the state’s fire marshal’s office, talk about turnout gear.
Robert Griffin, chief of Edneyville Fire & Rescue, knows it’s tough to recruit and keep volunteer firefighters and knows one big reason why.
“We can’t get firefighters because of the housing costs,” he says. That and fulltime job demands, busy schedules and other factors make it hard for volunteer fire departments statewide to sustain a steady force of firefighters.
State Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey heard that familair refrain from Chief Griffin on Thursday morning.
“That’s the biggest problem rural fire departments have,” Causey said during a visit to the main Edneyville fire station on U.S. 64. “They’re struggling to recruit volunteers and struggling to keep volunteers.”
Volunteer firefighters get a retirement benefit for a $10 a month contribution; some volunteer fire departments cover that for their volunteers; others don’t.
“Probably the biggest request I get is ‘help get our retirement up,'” said the insurance commissioner, now in his second year on the job. A former agency owner, Causey defeated Democratic incumbent Wayne Goodwin in 2016 in a rematch of the 2012 election that Goodwin won.
Fire coverage in rural areas is a challenge across the state, said Causey, who is also the state fire marshal. “One of the things county commissioners have seen fit to do is help fire departments get funded so they can have a paid firefighter at the department all during the week.”
Mutual aid agreements compound the firefighting force when volunteer response is lowest, during the work week. Henderson County’s fire service had demonstrated that four hours earlier, when the Mountain Home, Fletcher and Bat Cave departments assisted Edneyville at a house fire in Tall Timbers off U.S. 64.
During his daylong visit to Henderson County, Causey also toured the new Western North Carolina crime lab at the Justice Academy and visited the Mike Earle insurance agency in Hendersonville.
“It makes all the difference in the world,” Causey said of the on-site visits to rural firehouses. “You can take to them on the phone or look at their website but nothing’s ever going to match being on the ground, seeing first-hand the type of equipment they have, the building and the response capacity of that department to the community.”
Causey asked Griffin about Edneyville’s fire rating review, which comes up in a few weeks. Griffin said he’s confident that the department will improve its rating a notch, from a 5 to a 4.
“The better the rating of the fire department, the better chance people living in the fire district have of holding down their homeowner’s rate,” Causey said. When a department has a rating higher than 5, an improved rating can be worth $120 per point per year in fire insurance. Although a drop from 5 to 4 won’t make much difference in a homeowner’s cost, “it might be the difference between a house being saved or burning to the ground,” Causey said.
This has been a bad year so far for fire deaths in North Carolina. The state has recorded 70 fatalities already, versus 83 in all of 2017. Causey attributes the cold winter for many deaths. “I was told by a fire chief that North Carolina leads the nation in fire deaths this year,” he said.
Among the prevention strategies he’s put in place is greater education about smoke detectors. Blue Cross Blue Shield donated $1 million to the Sound the Alarm campaign, a Salvation Army program to install “as many working smoke detectors in these low-income homes as they can.”
Causey also won appropriations from the Legislature to hire 42 more inspectors to catch up on a backlog of inspections of 1,354 fire stations and 18 more law enforcement officers to investigate arson, fire insurance fraud and white-collar crime.