COMMISSIONERS: Fire chiefs discuss concerns, problems

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BAKERSVILLE – The Mitchell County Board of Commissioners at its regular meeting Monday, Jan. 6, received reports from members of the Mitchell County Fire Association leading to a conversation that started quietly but escalated when tempers flared over staffing issues. 

The Fire Association members attended the meeting at the request of Commissioner Jeff Harding, who encouraged the association and the local fire chiefs to attend a meeting and let the commissioners and meeting attendees know what they do and their needs. 

After an introduction from Fire Association President and Bakersville Fire Chief Ashley Beam, each chief gave a brief presentation about his department. 

One of the common themes from each chief’s presentation was a lack of volunteer firefighters. Spruce Pine Fire and Rescue Chief Josh Boone said the issue could cost Mitchell County “millions” a few years down the road if they were forced to instate paid firefighter positions across the county and Parkway Fire and Rescue Chief Kevin Hughes added the amount of training required for firefighters, regardless of whether they are paid or volunteers, is one key factor in the lack of manpower.

“I don’t look for new members to come unless they’re getting paid to be there,” Hughes said. 

Board of Commissioners Vice Chair Matthew “Vern” Grindstaff and Chair Jacob Willis encouraged the Fire Association to sit down and come up with a unified plan and specific requests for how to fix the local staffing problem. 

“This board is not against you,” Willis said. “We certainly support what you are doing. We’re not trying to be disrespectful, but get your ideas and bring us something. Ask us what you want but let it come from the association.”

Hughes responded by saying there is still no fire marshal in Mitchell County and added he feels safety as a whole could be taken more seriously by elected officials in Mitchell County. 

“You’re still asking a bunch of volunteers to sit down and draw a proposal,” Hughes said. “I think we’re still lacking in education of our board in what we do and what we need. We need to see the big picture. We need you guys to be on board. I don’t have time to sit down and do a proposal.”

Grindstaff leaned forward in his chair, placed his hands on the desk and quickly responded to Hughes and assured him he has never denied a fire marshal. 

“Kevin, as you so elegantly pointed out here tonight, you all are the professionals,” Grindstaff said. “I need y’all’s (sic) input. I need you to come to me and say, ‘Here’s how we think this needs to be done.’”

Harding intervened as voice volumes steadily increased and suggested training young people interested in firefighting as early as high school and offering training in the field at Mayland Community College. 

“This was sort of my idea and I feel like this conversation is going a little bit south,” Harding said. “I don’t want it to go south. If we start training our own people, it might be a lot easier to recruit some of these folks.”

Boone agreed with Harding, calling his suggestion for focus on local education “a good start.”

“There’s no one answer,” Boone said. “There are several steps that would be great. Every one of these firemen are taxpayers in Mitchell County. We can pay a little now or a lot later.”

Commissioner Danny Burleson said finding young firefighters without an incentive, monetary or otherwise, will be a difficult task. 

“These younger ones, without some kind of incentive, aren’t going to join us,” Burleson said. “The state’s brought it on themselves with all these requirements for what you have to do. I don’t think you’ll ever be able to recruit the younger ones."