Penland said in addition to equipment reaching the end of its reliable life cycle and calls for service escalating to an average rate of one every eleven minutes; the fire departments are subject to regulatory guidelines. He told how the North Carolina Department of Insurance rates fire districts solely on whether departments have sufficient equipment and buildings, and how those resources are distributed. A scale of 1-10 is used, where 1 is 100-percent compliant and 10 is hopeless. He said Buncombe County’s departments pool resources for a collective classification of 5. The difference in home insurance premiums among the classes is easily in the hundreds of dollars.
To illustrate how Buncombe County’s fire departments work together, he told of last fall, when a wildfire raging in Rutherfordton was expected to reach the county line in two days. Instead of waiting for it, Buncombe’s fire departments met the fire at Bald River and, as a result, saved a lot of houses. Penland said he would take the heat if somebody wanted to get him in trouble for saying so, but the National Forest Service had, “wanted to write off a lot of houses,” and that was not the “Buncombe County way.” Penland elaborated, “We had to let people who came from out of state know this is our community. We don’t just write off peoples’ houses. We do everything we can to save their property.”
Additional regulations come from the National Fire Protection Agency. The NFPA sets standards for the inspection, maintenance, testing, and replacement of equipment. Guidelines require any apparatus that does not meet current safety guidelines, or is more than twenty-five years old, to be replaced. Criteria cover safety concerns like passenger restraint and visibility for fire engines and a raft of EPA regulations. Penland estimated the replacement cost for substandard equipment in Buncombe County at $15 million. In Swannanoa, for example, the department had “prided itself” on keeping two thirty-year-old vehicles in day-to-day service; but those vehicles are no longer reliable.
The NFPA also regulates personnel. It requires departments to have enough staff to maintain all mandated functions at a structure fire. While the minimum number of persons is generally agreed to be four, Penland said his department typically has fifteen to sixteen overlapping calls a month. To meet the standard, Swannanoa often has to call on the Riceville or Black Mountain department. Penland described the perfect scenario as all departments being staffed with fourteen fulltime employees for all shifts, but that would constitute a ludicrous funding request.
Penland said Buncombe’s departments are highly dependent on volunteers. Unfortunately, the number of volunteer firefighters has been decreasing for thirty years, as the number of calls for service has tripled. The county’s fire departments employed 411 career firefighters in 2006, and that number is now up to 512, representing a 116-percent increase in personnel costs. Over the same period, health insurance has increased 125 percent, and there is no telling what the future holds for that political uncertainty.
Penland skipped over OSHA standards to address pending state legislation. House Bill 340 would allow firefighters to retire after thirty years of creditable service and receive an annual allowance of “eighty-five hundredths percent (0.85%) of the annual equivalent of the base rate of compensation most recently applicable to the firefighter or rescue squad worker for each year of creditable service” until their 62nd birthday. The Professional Firefighters Association of North Carolina had lobbied for the benefits, since law enforcement officers have enjoyed the same since 1980. The bill passed the house unanimously, and, with EMS personnel and fire marshals added as beneficiaries, now awaits senate approval. Commissioner Ellen Frost was supportive, since firefighters routinely submit to 1500oF and carcinogens, carrying 80 pounds of equipment. Commissioners Mike Fryar, Joe Belcher, and Al Whitesides gave various reasons for adequately funding fire departments.
In response to a series of questions from Frost, Penland said the average starting salary for Buncombe County firefighters was $27,000, which, stripped of benefits, amounted to a little more than $9.25/hour. Benefits vary by jurisdiction. For example, in 2011, as unfunded liabilities were bankrupting cities across the nation, Asheville leadership stopped offering its defined benefits retirement program to new hires. Even so, Penland said he’s often felt the county was the minor leagues, training employees to be recruited by Asheville’s superior compensation. But in spite of low wages and high housing costs, Penland said pecuniary compensation is secondary for troopers. “I got into it because I love to help people. I love to serve.”