The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

January 7, 2013

Volunteer firefighters want guaranteed voice on state fire commission

By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

CHARLESTON — Volunteer firefighters are adamant that a proposed change in a law expanding the state Fire Commission by four members needs to clarify that a governor is obligated appoint someone to represent them.

In the legislation prepared before the upcoming session, however, it reads the governor “may” appoint three members from the West Virginia State Firemen’s Association.

Tom Miller, legislative chairman for the group, and lobbyist Sam Love say this language is unacceptable.

“Leaving appointments to say the governor ‘may’ opens it up to being politicized,” Miller said Monday, as January interims opened.

The measure was on the agenda of Government Organization Subcommittee A, but without a quorum, the panel couldn’t act on it.

“We don’t want the appointments to be political,” Miller said.

“We want the appointments to be made of people who have technical knowledge of our job since they will be writing the recommendations we have to follow.”

If the bill is enacted as written, Miller and Love said, the governor could name anyone he wishes, even members of his family without any experience in fighting fires.

“He could appointment anybody from this bill,” Miller said.

“He could appoint a window washer. The job we do is a life-and-death job. The people that are promulgating the rules that we have to follow have to be knowledgeable of our business. That’s all we’re asking.”

The proposal would add four new members, and this specifies that one must be a master electrician, another an electrical inspector, a third has to be a sprinkler fitter, and the fourth a licensed home inspector.

Miller and Love have no qualms about that lineup but said it is critical that the other 13 members must necessarily represent the volunteer units.

“We want someone who has experience running and operating a volunteer fire department to be on the commission so they have an understanding of our position,” he said.

Miller said he cannot foresee Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin ever ignoring the volunteers, but once he is out of office, “you never know who is going to be elected.”

“It could be a major change to us,” said Miller, a longtime member of the Sissonville VFD.

“Under the current administration, I don’t see it as a problem. In future administrations, we have no control over it.”

Moreover, Miller said his group would like to see volunteers get a larger voice on the commission, since they provide 90 percent of the fire services in West Virginia.

Miller pointed out that the paid Beckley Fire Department is surrounded by 13 volunteer units in Raleigh County.

“It would be to us inappropriate for only the career department to have a voice in governing all of the fire services in Raleigh County,” he said.

“Although Beckley has a major voice at the table, that voice should be heard from everyone.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com