Volunteer fire department faces decertification

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The Woodsdale Fire Department is facing decertification from the Office of the State Fire Marshal effective Oct. 8.

Notice of the decertification was delivered to the department Aug. 9 and will go into effect 60 days after it was issued if no appeal is made.

If the department appeals the decertification, it will remain certified until a final ruling is made by Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey.

Derrick Clouston, Deputy Director of Training, Ratings and Governmental Services with the Office of the State Fire Marshal, said that the Woodsdale’s 9S rating will change to a 10, or unprotected.

If the department is decertified, it will no longer be recognized by the state. Clouston said the biggest impact is that firefighters would no longer be covered by the state for workers compensation or line of duty death benefits. However, the department could continue to operate depending on its relationship with the county.

That relationship, however, seems to be on rocky ground as well.

The Person County Board of County Commissioners noted that the department is in breach of its contract with the county due to its failure to comply with state regulations and failure to provide an audit for the current fiscal year. The absence of the audit also means that the department has not received and money from the county for the current fiscal year. The Allensville Fire Department is facing similar funding problems as a result of a failure to submit an audit for the current fiscal year.

Commissioners passed a motion to send Woodsdale VFD a notice of the breach of its contract with the county coinciding with the potential Oct. 8 decertification with the potential of extension pending an appeal to the Office of the State Fire Marshal.

The notice of decertification is a result of multiple failed inspections conducted by the Office of the State Fire Marshal beginning in 2017.

Department violations

To be certified, fire departments must have 15 eligible firefighters on its roster plus four for each substation. Woodsdale Fire Department has one substation, meaning it is required to have 19 eligible firefighters on its roster. The failure to meet adequate staffing levels was noted on inspections in January 2017 and April 2018. The inspections also noted the department’s failure to report fire incidents in the North Carolina Fire and Rescue Incident Reporting System (NFIRS).

The department was placed on probation following the failed inspections in January 2017 and April 2018.

On Nov. 15, 2018 the department was given until May 22 to resolve the issues identified in the inspection.

The findings of the May inspection led to the department being removed from the probationary status. However, the nature of the passed inspection was later called into question.

On June 19, two former firefighters reported receiving information from a current firefighter about inaccuracies with the department’s roster. The former firefighters said their address was listed as the home address of two current firefighters. The email address on file for another volunteer actually belonged to one of the former firefighters. One of their cell phone numbers was listed as the department’s daytime phone number. They also reported that five firefighters have the department’s post office box listed as their home address. Woodsdale Board of Directors President Ronnie Womack described the information provided to the Office of the State Fire Marshal as “felonious and erroneous” during the commissioners’ meeting Monday morning.

Womack said that a disgruntled former firefighter broke into the station to steal the information provided to the inspectors.

In an email to the Office of the State Fire Marshal, the two former volunteers, Laura and George Woody, said that a current firefighter who had known them for years saw the state certified roster on a desk at the station and noticed the incorrect information

On June 25, the Office of the State Fire Marshal conducted an unannounced inspection in which they found that the information provided to them during the May inspection was incorrect.

During the June inspection, inspectors found that the department’s Board of Directors had not held annual meetings in any of the last three years in conflict with the department’s own bylaws submitted to the North Carolina Secretary of State to be considered a non-profit organization. The department also did not have enough members on its board of directors in accordance with the bylaws.

Inspectors found that fire engine trucks and tankers as well as equipment checks were not valid and seemed to be falsified prior to the May inspection.

Inspectors found that five volunteers had been added to the roster with addresses in Charlotte and Cleveland County. According to the Office of the State Fire Marshal’s certification rules, firefighters must be notified through pagers that work through the county’s public safety radio system. Inspectors noted that Person County’s radio system would not be able to reach the volunteers in those areas, thus invalidating them as counting toward the department’s required staffing levels.

Inspectors found that only two volunteers listed on the roster lived within Woodsdale’s fire district.

During the inspection, some department volunteers noted that many members had not been seen in almost two years but had been entered onto training reports and had signed off on maintenance logs. The members also said that board members were listed as firefighters but only served on the board.

Certification rules state that firefighters must attend at least 36 hours of training annually in the area of fire prevention, fire suppression or protection of life and property. Departments must also provide four hours of training per month for a total of 48 hours per year. Woodsdale’s bylaws also state that each firefighter must attend at least four hours of training per month.

Inspectors found that Woodsdale did not provide the required four hours for August, September and November 2018. Members of the department listed on training reports said they were not in attendance. An unnamed Chief Officer was reported to have falsified a structure fire report so that they would have the required four members to respond to a call.

Commissioners question the department

Board Chairman David Newell Sr. asked if the department had missed any calls or had any equipment failures.

Clouston said he could not speak to the day-to-day operations of the department.

Vice Chairman Ray Jeffers said that he had heard that Woodsdale had been called as first responders to incidents but were then called and told not to come by the Roxboro Fire Department for calls in their own district.

Woodsdale Fire Chief James Royster confirmed this but said Woodsdale can’t compete with the Roxboro Fire Department.

“If you want to compare us to the Roxboro Fire Department there’s no comparison,” Royster said. “They have the personnel and equipment to beat us to every call if they wanted to.”

Person County Department of Emergency Services Director Doug Young said that the county has solutions for the short term and long term if Woodsdale is decertified.

Young said that in the short term bordering fire departments have stated that they will cover the Woodsdale district.

“They cover that area as a secondary already,” Young added.

In the long term, Young said that in order to keep the area as a fire district there would need to be a fire department and engine in the area. The Woodsdale Fire Department is a non-profit, it owns its station, substation and all of the assets. If Woodsdale is decertified, another department would need to take the area on and put a substation in the district.

During the commissioners’ meeting, Young stated that there is serious interest from multiple bordering departments to create a substation to take in the Woodsdale fire district but did not mention which departments expressed this interest.

Clouston declined to comment on any potential criminal cases that could stem from the investigations.

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