AVERY COUNTY — Firefighters and rescue teams are compensated with a combination of public and private funds.
Avery County has a seven-cent fire tax that is part of the county’s total property tax, and that money is distributed by the Avery Fire Commission to support the county’s fire departments. The departments can also receive private funding in addition to the tax dollars.
Generally, this means if there is a fire in someone’s home, a medical check is required, someone needs to be extracted from a car or otherwise rescued from whatever unfortunate circumstance, the person being rescued does not get a bill for services rendered.
Funding for the departments pays for equipment and employees, but the majority of people involved with local fire departments are volunteers, even taking time off work to help with rescue operations when they are needed and costing themselves money in the process.
“We would not be able to do anything without our volunteers,” Avery County Assistant Fire Marshal Paul Buchanan said. “Any time a volunteer is not working, he’s losing money. We’re asking our volunteers to drive their personal vehicles to the top of Grandfather Mountain and donate their day to go out and help a hiker off of Grandfather Mountain.”
Buchanan added volunteers take time off to help every day.
The primary additional expenses incurred by fire and rescue operations happen when an extended operation takes place, such as a long recovery after a drowning at Elk River Falls, as an example. In one of two incidents at the tourist attraction last year, a man’s body was not recovered from the pool of the Falls for 10 days. Those days accrue overtime for department employees and law enforcement personnel working at the scene.
Buchanan has the ability to get a remarkable amount of resources for rescues as needed. In the case of two recent injuries at difficult-to-reach locations at Grandfather Mountain, County Emergency Management called in a state helicopter rescue team on both occasions rather than incurring the risk and time investment of a high-angle rescue.
When Emergency Management arranges for resources to aid a rescue, typically the county does not get a bill for the aid. However, if an individual department were to request equipment or manpower, getting charged is a real possibility.
“If it goes through the proper channels, there’s not going to be a charge there,” Buchanan said, adding departments know Emergency Management can request what is needed for any given rescue, and a major function of the department is to determine what resources outside of the county are needed for a situation.
“We’re making sure it’s a need instead of a want,” Buchanan said.