HARPERS FERRY – West Virginia State Fire Marshal officials and Jefferson County fire and rescue leaders are conducting separate safety and operational reviews of the Blue Ridge Mountain Volunteer Fire Company.
“I will tell you that review is underway by multiple agencies within the state of West Virginia,” said Allen Keyser, director of the Jefferson County Emergency Services Agency (JCESA), the agency employing about six dozen full- and part-time county emergency rescue workers.
Appearing at a Jefferson County Commission budget workshop last week, Keyser said state fire officials are conducting fresh inspections of Blue Ridge Mountain after a JCESA report last month detailed numerous safety and management problems at the fire department.
The Jefferson County Fire and Rescue Association, an organization of all of the county’s seven volunteer fire departments, has also reactivated its own standards review committee to evaluate Blue Ridge Mountain’s operations and practices, he said.
Ross Morgan, the fire association’s president and the fire chief of the Shepherdstown Fire Department, said the association’s review committee wants to ensure Blue Ridge Mountain is properly adhering to various regulations and guidelines. The committee’s members, he said, will check the maintenance of Blue Ridge Mountain’s equipment as well as the training and certification of its volunteer membership.
Morgan said the association’s review committee also eventually plans to take a fresh look at the operations of the county’s six other fire departments.
Fire departments throughout West Virginia are inspected by a State Fire Marshal official about every four or five years, Morgan said. Those state inspections examine a fire station’s equipment, buildings, staff training and emergency call response times, he said.
Timothy Rock, a State Fire Marshal spokesman, said only one person is assigned to inspect more than 400 fire departments across the state. Rock said he could not immediately determine when Blue Ridge Mountain was last inspected by a state official.
Morgan, the fire association president, acknowledged that all of the county’s emergency officials recognize the importance of having a fire department serving the Blue Ridge area.
All of the county’s seven fire departments supply the space, equipment and vehicles that the county’s fire and medical fire-responder staff use during their work shifts. The county’s first-responder employees supplement the ability of volunteer firefighters and ambulance medical crews to respond to 911 emergency calls.
Keyser said Blue Ridge Mountain was the only fire department in the county found with the problems JCESA’s recent report identified. County first responders stationed for work shifts at the fire departments inspect emergency vehicles and equipment those departments provide that the county’s emergency workers rely on.
Operating a main fire station on Keyes Gap Road north of Route 9 and a smaller substation on Mission Road south of Route 9, Blue Ridge Mountain provides the primary firefighting and medical emergency service to Shannondale and the surrounding Blue Ridge area south of Harpers Ferry.
Blue Ridge Mountain fire department’s primary service area includes about 3,300 homes, according to county officials.
Completed on Jan. 13, the JCESA report on Blue Ridge Mountain’s operations documented various unsafe or inadequate equipment, building or management practices persisting at the fire department. “Some deficiencies remain uncorrected after being reported over a period of months or years,” the report states.
Various examples of poorly handled medical supplies, fire stations kept dangerously in disarray, and inadequately maintained or repaired equipment were highlighted in the report.
For example, Blue Ridge Mountain ambulances and fire trucks operated with numerous broken emergency lights, faulty brakes, significant oil leaks and dangling electrical wires. Emergency vehicles with expired inspection records continued to operate at Blue Ridge Mountain, according to the report. Fire trucks with flashing dashboard warning gauges continued to be driven to emergency calls.
The JCESA report cites storage compartments with faulty doors that failed to stay shut during emergency calls. Medical supplies stored in cold ambulances posed potential hazards if used on patients, according to the report. Drugs and oxygen tanks were stored inadequately and hazardously in at least one of Blue Ridge Mountain’s fire station.
In one example of a dangerous practice highlighted in the report, Blue Ridge Mountain continued to drive to emergencies a fire pump truck that leaked fuel. “The pump must be fueled upon arrival at an emergency incident prior to use,” the report states. Meanwhile, the fire department continues to use a melted plastic gasoline can that spilled gas out of the neck of its pouring spout.
Meanwhile, addressing management issues, Blue Ridge Mountain members have several times disregarded dispatch protocols and flouted operational standards, according to the JCESA report. The fire department has attempted several times to “circumvent” the county’s 911 dispatch protocols to make its statistics of emergency responses look better than they are, according to the report.
In at least one case, the department “misrepresented” to the county’s 911 communication center that one of its ambulances was available to respond to emergency calls when it was out of service being repaired.
“Unfulfilled pledges of improvement and the repetition of some unfavorable situations weaken the trust JCESA has in [the Blue Ridge Mountain fire department], which is critical when we are placing our most valuable asset, our people, in their hands,” the JCESA report states.
The 16-page report with 26 pages of supporting documents was prepared under Keyser’s direction as the JCESA’s director.
Last month JCESA administrators and board members, concerned for the safety of county first-responder employees, stopped county employees from using Blue Ridge Mountain equipment or from manning work shifts from the fire company’s stations. Since then, maintenance questions with the fire company’s two ambulances were resolved, allowing county employees to resume using those vehicles for emergency medical calls, according to JCESA officials.
Blue Ridge Mountain’s fire chief, Earl Cogle, and other officials with the fire department have not responded to requests for comment from the Spirit.
Cogle, while appearing last month before the JCESA’s board of directors, acknowledged the problems flagged in the agency’s report. The fire department was addressing the various issues in the reporting, he said. That included renovations underway at the department’s two stations to enable county first responders to spend their daytime and nighttime work shifts at those buildings in the future.
Cogle said that he hoped donated construction work will complete renovations to the department’s main fire station sometime this spring.
Bob Faas, a JCESA board member and a 30-year career firefighter responder for Montgomery County, Maryland, said Blue Ridge Mountain members were working hard to resolve the issues highlighted in the JCESA.
Serving as a liaison between JCESA and Blue Ridge Mountain officials, Faas has been a volunteer firefighter for Blue Ridge Mountain and the Bakerton Fire Company for nearly two decades.
For now, county first responders are positioned for daytime shifts at a county trailer next to Blue Ridge Elementary School, even as county officials acknowledge the trailer is inadequate for housing the first responders.
During their day shifts, responders drive a car to Blue Ridge Mountain’s main station or substation to obtain an ambulance to use during emergency medical calls.
At night, those responders stationed in the Blue Ridge service area answer emergency calls from Citizens Fire Company in Charles Town or Friendship Fire Company in Harpers Ferry.
Residents in the Blue Ridge area have voiced concerns about whether the current positioning of county responders will significantly delay service to 911 medical calls. However, Faas and Keyser have said the arrangement won’t meaningfully delay emergency calls in the Blue Ridge area.