With a new fire chief on board, changes have come in the way the Elkin Fire Department’s members are responding to calls for service. This change and two other fire-related topics were discussed with the Elkin Board of Commissioners Thursday night during a town project update meeting, while a fourth topic will be discussed at a later time.
“We are working on change with the fire department and how it functions,” said Chief Mike Morton prior to Thursday night’s meeting. “First of all, the way we respond is a little different than what we’ve done in the past.
“No matter what kind of emergency the people on duty at the station, no matter if they are paid or volunteer, we go immediately. There is no delay — whether it’s a medical emergency, wreck, fire or fire alarm,” said Morton. “We have someone on paid duty 24 hours a day seven days a week.”
This remains the same as it was prior to Morton being hired by the town.
“Beyond that it’s changed a little. With a medical emergency whether it’s a cut finger or a heart attack, the people on duty go with the trucks and the volunteers not on duty can respond directly to the scene. If there is a medical emergency, they go straight to you so they can render essential aid with assistance by the rescue squad and EMS folks,” Morton said.
Elkin firefighters who have medical certification do not carry medical supply bags with them in personal vehicles. Those come on the trucks when the on-duty member responds.
“For other types of calls — motor vehicle accidents, fires or fire alarms — the on-duty members go immediately. We are asking the volunteers to all respond to the station so we have the people needed together and can get the other equipment to the scene,” Morton said. “In the past, they’d been able to show up in personal vehicles, but there are problems with that. They have no gear with them — they don’t have water, hose, ladder, airpacks, or anything they need to take care of the scene, so we ask them to come here for additional equipment, and that ensures our additional apparatus is rolling to the scene.”
The difference in responses to a medical call or a fire- or wreck-related call, Morton explained, is at a medical call, it is typically at a home or business where it is reasonably safe. But in the case of a wreck or fire, parking is in the road, and possibly even in the middle of the road in the case of a wreck, the fire apparatus is needed on scene to protect the scene and the personnel working the incident.
“In too many cases, someone comes barreling up on the scene and can easily clip someone trying to work the accident,” Morton said. “We’ve been teaching folks to get the trucks on the scene and get them in place to protect the rest of the scene, so by rolling more than one fire engine we can block multiple directions of traffic.”
And he said traffic is just one element to deal with. He said having multiple trucks and having personnel ride together establishes better accountability and command at the scene. In cases where personnel responded in their own vehicles, he said it wasn’t unusual for a person to show up and then leave the scene without anyone knowing they were there. “What if they were looking down an embankment to see if there were any other patients in a wreck and slip and fall and we didn’t even know they were on the scene, so we don’t know to go look for them,” Morton said as an example.
“Firefighting is a team sport. No one can do anything individually, we have to work as a set of cohesive units. In order to get people there and home safe, we plan on responding in teams,” he said.
Morton said even with wrecks that involve a medical emergency, the new policy is better for all concerned.
“They don’t have the equipment with them in that case, so they can’t help with that. The equipment we have is on the truck, so what can that person do just by pulling up to the scene? And then if every vehicle pulls up to the scene it is more complicated and crowded. If you include another person standing in traffic or a privately owned vehicle, you are just making the scene larger. The best thing is to make it safer and return it to normalcy as soon as you can.
“So the focus is on a team-response approach on keeping people safe and getting the right equipment on the scene. It may be new to us, but it’s something other places do regularly. Just in North Carolina, Mecklenburg, New Hanover and Brunswick counties respond this way, so it’s not something that is brand new and on a whim. It’s just new to Elkin. It’s a change and it takes a little while to work through the bumps, but we’ve been doing this since June 22 and it’s working. We feel like we can make the scene safer and maintain accountability and get people we need there on the scene. It is a tremendous improvement.”
Other additions to the fire department include a heightened fire code enforcement plan. “The state fire code mandates inspections at a certain frequency through nearly all buildings in town, anything that is not a one- or two-family dwelling,” said Morton, noting the new focus for the firefighters.
“We are also trying to do a lot more training, bringing our people together to get them the skills they need, specifically for those who couldn’t make it to Monday trainings. And we are including more training with our departments around us,” he said.
Regional hazard mitigation plan in works
Another topic breached by Morton is that of a developing regional hazard mitigation plan, which includes groups in Surry, Yadkin, Davie, Stokes, Forsyth, Rockingham and Caswell counties.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has established a stipulation that communities have in place a plan to mitigate hazardous and emergency events, Morton explained.
“In the past the town’s been part of a county plan, but the federal and state agencies have been pushing to have more regionalized plans because it doesn’t make sense to have 100 different plans,” he said.
In February of 2014, Surry and other counties came together and have developed a 1,500-page plan. “It is not exactly a brief document,” he said. “What the plan does is considers various risks, vulnerabilities and hazards the region as a whole has to face and designs a plan to keep our communities from being affected so much by those hazards and vulnerabilities.”
There are 30 items within the 1,500-page document which are specific to Elkin.
Morton said the plan states if the local entities included adopt it, then the groups are going to adopt doing the things it outlines by a set forth schedule.
“One of the reasons for adopting a mitigation plan that makes it important is it makes us available to greater levels of hazard mitigation funding, for things such as purchasing properties in flood plains and developing them in a manner to lessen the effects of flooding on the community or public education to make people aware of what they face and how to prevent it. We have an opportunity for more money to do that with this plan in place, so it is pretty important,” Morton said.
“The better we plan to try to make ourselves resilient, the more we’ll be resilient.”
Firefighter recruitment plan launching
With just 26 members on the roster for the fire department, Morton said another key focus of the department is recruitment efforts for more volunteers.
“We need people. We need people badly. We’ve got great people here, but we don’t have enough,” he said. “When you look at the average number of people we bring to a fire or fire alarm, we had just over eight people in 2014-2015. We need a lot more than that.”
Of the 26 members, three are paid full-time members which work 24 hours on and 48 hours off. The rest are volunteers.
“Out of those volunteers, several are getting older. There are a handful who it won’t be long before they are eligible for retirement, and we don’t have the numbers in place to replace those folks when they leave.”
Assistant Chief Don Mitchell has taken the lead on the department’s recruitment efforts, Morton said. “He is trying to develop a plan, and it is focused on five general areas — preparation, selection, orientation, training and retention.
“We’re working hard now to start to implement a plan to draw people in and strengthen it to the numbers we need for the future of the department this town needs,” Morton said.
He said one thing being considered down the road is a junior or cadet firefighter program. “It is something we’re considering in the long term, but one of the things with that is we need folks to supervise the juniors before we get them, so we need folks already on the ground running. We need senior leadership in the department so they can be the folks to lead and mentor the younger ones.”
The department needs people from the community to come in and volunteer their service to the town, Morton said. “Because the alternatives are pretty bad. Going with a fire department would be horrible,” Morton said. “Or if there are no volunteers, then we have to pay people and that is a lot of salaries the town would have to endure. We are hoping the community will really get on board and send people to us, because we need them.”
Mutual aid discussion postponed
Another topic Morton had planned on bringing to the commissioners is that of mutual aid and automatic mutual aid agreements with surrounding fire departments, something the Elkin Fire Department doesn’t have in place.
Mutual aid agreements would guarantee support in the form of trucks, equipment and personnel response from departments such as Arlington Fire Department in Jonesville in the case of a fire or fire alarm being dispatched.
Due to other project discussions taking up more time than expected, the commissioners asked Morton to bring that up for discussion at a future meeting.
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.