The Warren County Board of Commissioners tabled proposed Roanoke-Wildwood fire district expansion Monday night after Chairman Tare “T” Davis received a note stating that the Ebony (Va.) Volunteer Fire Department will be voting on a new fire chief in December. This leaves open the possibility that the county can keep its contract with Ebony VFD and maintain the coverage area the way it is.
The vote was taken during the commissioners’ regular monthly meeting at the Armory Civic Center in Warrenton, N.C., following a public hearing where four citizens who would be affected by the fire district change vigorously voiced their concerns regarding increased response times from Roanoke-Wildwood, versus the closer Ebony VFD, and the prospect of a new fire tax.
The issue is that the Ebony VFD, a Virginia-based fire department, does not meet North Carolina requirements to be the main fire department on scene at fire calls in N.C. Ebony is compliant in Virginia and can still respond to calls in North Carolina through a mutual aid agreement.
The citizens in Warren County that are currently covered by Ebony VFD will need fire coverage once Ebony’s certification expires.
Among citizens to speak at the hearing was Tony Conner of Gaston Heights subdivision, who said that local government had created a dire issue. He estimated that response time from Roanoke-Wildwood versus Ebony fire department to his front door was an additional six minutes—“an eternity in a fire’s life”—and that it would take at least 30 minutes for Roanoke-Wildwood to respond to a fire at Jack’s Landing subdivision, also in the Ebony fire district.
He expressed concern about increased insurance rates until a Roanoke-Wildwood substation could be built in the expanded district and about a newly imposed fire tax.
Davis said he agreed with most of what Conner said and that he had personally been involved in the issue from the beginning. He added that the county cannot control Ebony VFD and that the state, not the county, “makes the rules” regarding fire department certifications.
Also during the hearing, three Warren County fire chiefs, including Chief Lorenzo Wilkins of Roanoke-Wildwood, and Warren County Attorney Hassan Kingsberry addressed the issue and their solution at the moment.
The solution presented during the hearing was for the Roanoke-Wildwood VFD to expand its fire district and annex the area that Ebony VFD would be dropping. This expansion could lead to construction of a Roanoke-Wildwood substation in the new coverage area and the addition of a fire tax for the citizens in the annexed area, a fire tax that is not currently being paid by residents in the Ebony fire district.
In addition to concerns about response times and a fire tax, questions were raised about whether or not Ebony VFD was being paged out to fire calls or choosing to not respond, and about exactly what requirements needed to be met for the department to satisfy North Carolina requirements.
Chief Joey Andrews with the Afton-Elberon Volunteer Fire Department, who serves on the Warren County Fire Commission and is president of the Warren County Firemen’s Association, said the Ebony fire department failed an inspection conducted by the N.C. Office of State Fire Marshal.
“They did not want to comply with what the state was requiring,” he said.
Andrews said he met with Chief Keith King of Ebony VFD several times to try to encourage him, and that the Chief 101 class was the only requirement that had to be met. A meeting was held at Ebony fire department with King and two men from Jack’s Landing subdivision, Andrews said, and King’s comment was, “North Carolina needs us before we need them. I’m not going to do it.”
Since the state has not yet pulled Ebony VFD’s certification, Andrews said that nobody should have told the department that they cant respond to calls, so he didn’t know where any confusion regarding response was coming from.
Davis, Kingsberry and the three fire chiefs indicated that the county has gone above and beyond to work with the Ebony VFD, going as far as offering to pay for King’s time to take the required class, but without success.
The Gazette-Observer tried to reach King for comment and to confirm whether or not he would be stepping down as fire chief in December, but a phone message left for him had not been returned at press time. The newspaper was able to confirm that the Ebony VFD will be holding officer elections in December.
The commissioners’ vote on the fire district expansion was tabled until the board’s work session on Dec. 11.