WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — A local beach town’s fire department is in critical need of more employees and it is looking to a federal grant program for help.
On Feb. 16, the Wrightsville Beach Board of Aldermen agreed to apply for the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant, which would fund six new positions in part for the next three years. Fire Chief Josh Haraway said the department is in need of more people to ensure the department can comply with safety standards.
The grant would reach over a million dollars in payouts over three years. The grant would cover 100% of the positions — $387,000 — of the six positions.
After that, the town would have to pay. According to Haraway, the department would reduce part-time employees and undergo some restructuring to leave the town with a $275,000 to $300,000 overall annual contribution.
The Wrightsville Beach Fire Department has 12 certified full-time firefighters and 15 part-time members. The department also employs 25 paid on-call members, college interns and volunteers that receive stipends for their service. Only two are certified; eight have EMT basic certifications.
At the aldermen meeting, Haraway explained the lack of certified firefighters threatens the department’s quick-response time and safety of its employees. On-call members without certification can only operate in support roles — they can’t enter burning buildings nor administer EMS — and can lack experience and training.
Only three career firefighters are on shift at a time, so maintaining a safe number of employees for each call is challenging. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration maintains a “two in, two out” rule for hazardous situations. In the event of a structure fire, two people should enter the building while two remain outside in support.
Compared to other coastal communities, Wrightsville Beach has one of the lowest numbers of people per shift. With a year-round population of 2,500 people, Wrightsville Beach staffs three per shift, while nearby Carolina Beach (pop: 6,500) has five, Atlantic Beach (pop: 2,000) staffs four, Nags Head (pop: 3,000) has eight, and Surf City (pop: 3,200) uses six. Aside from Carolina Beach, each of those municipalities has lower firefighter-to-citizen ratios; each one also has more people employed overall.
When WBFD gets multiple calls at once, which often happens during the busy summer season, maintaining adequate staff at a scene can be near impossible, often leaving only one person to respond to calls.
Department data shows from January to September 2022, the department’s new ladder truck was only staffed with one person almost 73% of the time. Over this same period, 34 calls were made simultaneously or within 15 minutes of clearing another scene — one every nine days.
While Haraway said it was rare the department needs to recall staff in spontaneous emergencies, doing so can be time-consuming— only eight of the 52 total crew live within 10 minutes of the fire station. If units have to be called from other agencies, it also takes them more time to get to the island.
A department’s efficiency can affect its Insurance Services Office rating, determined by the state fire marshal on a scale of one to 10. With one being the best, the Wrightsville Beach Fire Department has an ISO of four, while the state average is five. Insurance companies use ISOs to establish fire insurance premiums for property owners; a higher number could cause higher premiums.
If the department is reported for violating guidelines, it prompts a fire marshal investigation; Haraway told PCD that has not happened at Wrightsville Beach.
With six more employees — three firefighters and three fire engineers — the department can add two more personnel to each shift. According to Haraway’s calculations, firefighters can make entry at 2 minutes 47 seconds after the call, rather than 5 minutes and 51 seconds with current staffing.
Wrightsville Beach has not added positions since 1999. The number of annual calls has remained constant since that year — 507 in 2000, 508 in 2022 — with the calls peaking in 2020 with 799. According to Haraway, Wrightsville Beach’s reliance on part-time and paid on-call personnel is outdated.
“It’s not a sustainable option,” Haraway told aldermen on Thursday.
The department was all-volunteer until 1983 when the first fire chief, Everett Ward, was hired. He stated in an article in a 2001 Wrightsville Beach Magazine article the department should have a total of eight personnel on the two first out apparatus. The paid-on-call program was implemented as an option to alleviate hiring full-time personnel. In 2004, the ocean rescue director position was created; now there are two ocean rescue employees that are trained as fire engineers and EMS personnel.
As demographics of Wrightsville Beach change and the price of living increases, it is harder for firefighters to live in the community they serve. No paid on-call member is a Wrightsville Beach resident, meaning they take longer to reach the island in an emergency.
“Unfortunately, very few of them live close enough to get here in a timely manner to change the outcome of the incident,” Haraway said.
Part-time members are also hard to find because full-time vacancies with overtime benefits are more appealing. Many departments across the state and region are working to fill vacancies, many recovering from Covid-19 upheavals.
The department has also been responding more to mutual aid requests — agreements to assist other municipalities — from the Wilmington Fire Department. Three members must be sent with every call.
“Growth on this side of the county has obviously went up quite a bit over the last few years with Mayfaire, Landfall,” Haraway said. “So you know, it’s just a necessity based on the automatic agreements.”
Haraway shared with PCD the department sees one or two people leave each year. He attributed that to younger members seeking a more active atmosphere.
“They want to run calls; they want to do their job,” Haraway said. “And our call volume drastically drops because we don’t have the population in the October through February timeframe that we do March through September.”
The six new positions would be entry-level, which the department lacks now, to provide opportunities to a larger group of people. Firefighters will be paid $40,000 and engineers $46,000.
The problem isn’t just about numbers, it’s also about certifications. Certification training takes six months, and if trainees pay for it out of pocket, it’s a deterrent to those that aren’t looking to make firefighting their career.
Haraway noted the department was sponsoring a few college interns to attend training, but he said it wouldn’t be surprising if they took positions elsewhere upon completion. He said the department’s compensation is “on the lower end” when compared to adjacent agencies.
“We are looking at ways that can be improved in the future in hopefully talks with the budget planning,” Haraway said.
Haraway expects to find out if the town receives the grant by the fall. In the chance it isn’t awarded, Haraway plans to request the town to fund three positions at $181,000 total during this budget season, the money to be returned to reserves if the grant comes through.
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at firstname.lastname@example.org