The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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November 16, 2012

Problems for Smithers VFD not over yet

An insurance check is in the mail, but there’s still no long-term resolution in sight for the Smithers Volunteer Fire Department, which was shut down on Saturday for lack of vehicle and liability coverage. It is the second such closure this year.

County and municipal officials say they want to see the department get back on its feet, but that it will likely be a process.

“Our ultimate goal is to see Smithers where they should be and have a fire station there,” says Fayette County Fire Coordinator Steve Cruikshank.

“On the other hand, we need to make sure we’ve got good coverage for the people. The ultimate resolution rests on the fire department following through and doing what they need to do. We’re assisting them as best we can.”

Fire coordinators from Fayette and Kanawha counties, representatives from the state fire marshal’s office and the fire departments themselves met Tuesday evening to try to find a resolution to the situation. Officials outlined to the membership what needs to be done to get the department back into compliance, and attempted to set up a plan of correction with timelines.

“I think they’re really trying to get things moving forward,” says Smithers Mayor Tom Skaggs.

The lack of insurance is a relatively quick fix. But in February, the state fire marshal’s office identified five major problems at the department and gave them one year to come into compliance. Some of the issues have been resolved. But others, like the need for firefighter and officer training, are still ongoing.

“They definitely need to get those fire officer classes (...) completed. That’s basically what we’re waiting on,” said State Fire Marshal Sterling Lewis.

In addition, there is confusion about the status of Fire Chief Tim Whittington’s employment. The West Virginia State Police have launched an investigation into an allegation of misuse of funds by Whittington, according to a Sept. 27 Charleston Gazette article.

The town of Smithers wrote a letter dismissing Whittington at the end of June, according to the mayor, but members of the department countered that their bylaws state that only their board of directors can take such action. No board was in place at the time, according to one municipal official.

A board of directors that includes citizens is now reportedly in place, which officials hope will provide some accountability to the department. They are also supposed to be working to manage their funds more responsibly.

Cruikshank said the “Who is chief?” question is one that all parties are currently trying to answer together.

The department is its own nonprofit corporation, independent of the town government.

State law provides for fire departments to be run by the municipality or stand alone as a separate entity, as is the case in Smithers. But the department’s paperwork of incorporation was not current with the Secretary of State’s office until Wednesday, raising further questions about its past status.

According to Fayette County Commission President Matthew Wender, the town council is receptive to passing an ordinance to take the authority to appoint and replace the fire chief. Lewis agrees that state code gives them such authority, but that they may need to develop and draft a process to do so.

The town’s attorney, Anthony Ciliberti, declined to comment.

The county doesn’t exercise any control over the fire department other than through payment of funds, according to Fayette County Prosecuting Attorney Carl Harris.

The state cut off funds to the department in July 2011 and the Kanawha County Commission is likewise refusing to provide any financial support. Fayette County fire levy funds are currently paying utility bills.

Boomer and Montgomery fire departments are responding to calls in Smithers, and Mayor Skaggs advises residents to remain calm as the situation is resolved.

Lewis says before reopening the department, his office would need to do an evaluation to make sure its equipment is up to standard and that personnel meet State Fire Commission training requirements.

During the Smithers City Council meeting Monday, a citizen attempted to ask about the fire department but was told by the mayor that it would not be discussed. He said only that he is not sure what course of action will be taken but that “changes are coming.”

“How all this plays out, I can’t say. We’re taking things day by day,” says Cruikshank. “Everything’s not black and white right now.”

— E-mail: cmoore@register-herald.com

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