WISE — Appalachia councilman and town fire/rescue official Travis Anderson last week urged county supervisors to abandon further talk about a proposal to build four new emergency services stations.
Anderson, along with fire and rescue officials from several other towns and the city of Norton, turned out to oppose the concept, which has not been previously discussed in a board of supervisors meeting.
According to County Administrator Michael Hatfield, it is one of several ideas that have been discussed as part of multi-agency talks to address fire and rescue funding and staffing challenges.
During supervisors’ May 9 meeting, Anderson gave a presentation noting that there are fire departments in all six county towns, Powell Valley and Norton, with emergency medical units in the city and in Appalachia, Big Stone Gap, Pound, Wise and the valley.
Appalachia fire and rescue has a standing request before supervisors to use part of the former Appalachia High School parking lot for the site of a proposed new town fire/rescue station.
The fire departments average more than 1,200 responses per year, Anderson told supervisors. Emergency medical services average about 5,300 calls per year.
Of concern, Anderson said, is a county proposal to consolidate first responder services into four new stations: One between Appalachia and Big Stone Gap, one in the Esserville area, one in the Indian Creek area and one in the Carfax area.
Doing so will increase response times for all agencies compared to now, he said, endangering lives and property.
Further, Anderson estimated, the county would have to spend at least $8 million to build the new stations and hire at least 70 full time personnel.
Losing more localized services will have a negative impact on Insurance Services Office (ISO) ratings for homeowners and business owners who need property insurance, he added. Several communities with current low ISO ratings will see them go to a Class 10 rating, the worst ranking on the ISO scale, Anderson predicted.
In that scenario, businesses will stop looking at potential Wise County locations, he said.
The real problem is inadequate county funding for existing units, Anderson asserted. Out of a $50 million-plus annual budget, the county contributes less than $450,000, he noted.
If the county chose instead to consolidate fire and rescue services, the annual cost would exceed $17 million, Anderson predicted.
District One Supervisor Fred Luntsford, who is also Appalachia’s town manager, said the four-station proposal has been out there for some time.
But the board of supervisors has never discussed it, Chair Dana Kilgore replied.
Luntsford said the concept should be scrapped.
District One member Bobby Cassell asked if other fire and rescue departments had contributed to Anderson’s presentation.
Anderson said they had met a couple of months ago and the four-station proposal came up. Emergency services officials thought the idea had gone by the wayside, but it has come up again, he added.
Responding to questions, Hatfield wrote in a May 13 email that the four-station proposal “is one of many concepts we are looking at. It is not far enough along as a concept to discuss the accuracy of his comments.”
Discussions have recently been underway among county officials and fire/rescue officials about how to address funding and staffing challenges. Those began in response to a funding request from the Wise Rescue Squad, Hatfield noted.
In a separate May 13 email, Luntsford noted that he has been informing supervisors about the financial challenges for two to three years, including the decline in volunteers and the resulting need to pay full-time staff.
The four-station concept has not been formally presented to supervisors, Luntsford wrote, “but, in the initial stages of discussion with emergency providers, the idea was not very well received. Most thought the idea had been shelved as not feasible, however, it stayed on the table to the point that even the locations of the new stations were revealed.”
Luntsford credited Hatfield for seeking solutions but added, “As was well presented but a collaboration of EMS providers at the last county board meeting, the four station option hopefully was put to rest.”