Firetrucks parked at the Marion Fire Department in McDowell County. Alyssa Graham / Carolina Public Press

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Twenty years ago, whenever a call came into the Marion Fire Department, dozens of volunteers put down their dinner forks, kissed their children goodbye and headed out the door. 

They made their way to the fire department in downtown Marion, joined a handful of paid firefighters and set out to mend whatever emergency was afoot. 

That’s not the case anymore, because volunteer firefighters are becoming increasingly hard to come by, Marion Fire Chief Ray McDaniel said. 

“We’ve got 11 volunteers right now,” McDaniel said. “In 2006, we had 30.” 

While Marion’s volunteer firefighter numbers have drastically decreased for myriad reasons — such as more required training and difficulty getting time off other jobs — the need for them has not. According to McDaniel, in 2006, the fire department received an average of 500 calls annually. Last year, that average was 1,400. 

The flight of volunteers over the past few decades has forced the city to look into other options for emergency response — namely adding more staff firefighters, whose pay comes out of the city’s budget. 

“Retention has fallen off the cliff, and we’re having to scramble to be able to provide adequate staffing,” Marion City Manager Bob Boyette said about the loss of volunteers. 

Luckily, federal COVID relief funding has provided a cushion in Marion’s budget. In April, the city moved its American Rescue Plan Act allotment into its operating budget.

ARPA for non-COVID needs

Though the federal government distributed ARPA to local governments for the purpose of recovering communities from the pandemic, not all ARPA expenses have to be related to COVID-19. 

Many Western North Carolina local governments, such as Jackson and Yancey counties, have opted to claim their ARPA distributions, which were determined by population, as “revenue loss.” That money is then moved into the government’s budget and can be used for almost anything, according to guidelines set by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. 

“As long as they are reporting to us where the funds are coming from, they have pretty big leeway,” a Treasury official told Carolina Public Press earlier this year. 

A community doesn’t have to actually experience a loss in revenue to claim its ARPA dollars as such. In Marion’s case, Boyette said the city’s economy fared well, but other issues, such as lack of fire department staff, became more dire. 

According to McDaniel, the number of volunteer firefighters, which was already dwindling, took a nosedive during the pandemic. From spring 2020 to fall 2021, the fire department didn’t receive a single volunteer application. 

“During the pandemic, it was really, like, take care of yourself and your family,” McDaniel said. “You know, you have to think sometimes for yourself. 

“Can you really afford to risk going out, volunteering, these go to calls and maybe take a chance on getting sick or getting one of your family members sick?”

But the city can’t go on without enough firefighters, which McDaniel said is roughly eight for each shift for a city Marion’s size, so the city is looking to hire six firefighters to join the existing six paid staff. 

Freeing up funds for city needs

Twelve paid firefighters would ensure at least three firefighters were on call at all times and alleviate the struggle of not having enough volunteers. It would also mean that the existing staff firefighters would not have to regularly work back-to-back 24-hour shifts, as Tyler Norville did last week. 

“There’s never been a fire that hasn’t gone out,” Norville said leaning against a parked firetruck during his 35th hour on duty May 5. 

“We’re always going to get it done. It doesn’t matter if there’s just three of us.”

Because Marion claimed its $1.3 million in ARPA as “revenue loss,” the city’s budget has more room to prioritize adding the six positions, Boyette said. The Marion Fire Department also applied for a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that would cover the six firefighters’ salaries and benefits for three years. Including benefits, McDaniel said each position will cost the city somewhere around $50,000 annually. 

If the department gets the grant and FEMA bankrolls the six new firefighters, Marion will not only have a buffer to figure out how to cover the salaries after the three-year grant ends, but even more room in the city’s budget will open up.

That would mean more much-needed projects could move further up Marion’s priority list, Boyette said, such as nonurgent repairs to roadways and water/sewer systems or hiring a full-time grant manager for the city. 

“These are important things that should have some future benefits,” he said. 

“This is a path — ARPA funds are a path to get us to increase staffing in the next few years. Otherwise, we’d have to look at taxes.”

Shelby Harris

Shelby Harris a Carolina Public Press staff writer, based in Asheville. Email her at sharris@carolinapublicpress.org to contact her.