Chester VFD officials reflect as centennial nears

CHESTER – As it approaches its centennial, the Chester Volunteer Fire Department continues to see its annual number of calls go up at a time of declining membership, Chief John Hissam said.

“The number of fires we’ve had per year has gone down, but the number of medical calls requiring first-responders has increased,” Hissam said, referring to the department’s recently completed annual report for 2012.

The city had only one structure fire and only three fires resulting in more than $1,000 in damage, according to the report, prepared by department Secretary Brian Handley.

The Jan. 30, 2012, structure fire at 50 Fairview Road resulted in $65,000 in damage but no injuries, the report said. Although the fire’s cause was undetermined, there were no working smoke detectors in the house.

The city hasn’t had a structure fire since then. Hissam said the city once went 19 months without a structure fire.

Two vehicle fires in 2012 resulted in damages totalling $7,500, the report said.

Hissam said he’s heartened by the lack of fire-related injuries and damage in the city last year.

“We’ve been lucky in that respect,” he said. “Hopefully, the fire prevention materials we provide to the schools do some good.”

What’s kept firefighters increasingly busy is the growing number of medical calls, for everything from elderly residents with health problems to drug overdose victims, Hissam said.

“Sad to say, drug overdoses have been on the increase,” he said.

Chester firefighters responded to 225 alarms in 2012, including 181 nonfire emergency calls. That’s up from 203 alarms in 2011 and 147 alarms in 2010. Nonfire emergency calls represented 90 percent of all the calls in 2012, the report said.

Chester VFD also provides mutual aid to surrounding departments in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

“We go anywhere that we’re asked to if we have the manpower,” Hissam said.

The report said average response time, from the time of dispatch to the time of departure from the station, was four minutes, 58 seconds. The average arrival time, from the time of dispatch to the time of arrival on scene, was five minutes, 54 seconds.

The month with the most alarms – 26 – was August. The day of the week with the most activity was Tuesday, with 38 alarms. The busiest time of day was 4:01-11:59 p.m., with 100 alarms, according to the report.

The department had seven river rescue calls in 2012. City river operations cover the section of the Ohio River from just north of the Newell bridge to the northern tip of Babbs Island.

Hissam, chief since 1991, said the most troubling aspect of the annual report is the number of active members in his department, which is down from 20 in 2011 to 16 currently. Hissam blamed the increasingly rigorous training requirements for volunteers as one reason for the decline.

“It’s really slowed the amount of people willing to step up and be a volunteer firefighter,” he said.

Last year, the National Fire Protection Association generated controversy among West Virginia volunteer fire departments when it promulgated a new set of training and safety standards for volunteers that previously applied only to paid, full-time firefighters.

The Chester VFD’s membership roll includes four emergency medical technicians, two of whom work full time for a private ambulance company. All members are certified as firefighters and first-responders, Hissam said.

The department in 2012 lost four firefighters after two – Steve Kourpas and John Cashdollar – retired with 15 years of service each, and two resigned for work reasons.

The department has an annual budget of $491,500, about 80 percent of which is covered by its annual Fall Bash in September. The rest comes from fees generated by the CVFD Storage Units on U.S. Route 30 and from city, county and state sources.

Hissam said this year’s Fall Bash, scheduled for Sept. 20-21, will help pay for the department’s 100th anniversary celebration in 2014. The centennial celebration is scheduled for June 24-28 on Fourth Street and will replicate the department’s “old-time street fairs,” the last one of which was held in 1983.

Hissam said the 100th anniversary event will not be a fundraiser but a gift to the city of Chester and Hancock County. The department will pay 50 percent of the cost of all the rides, so that a $20 ride wristband will cost only $10, Hissam said. The department has retained Deshler Amusements in Wellsville to provide the rides.

Local veterans’ groups, fraternal and religious organizations will be welcome to set up booths for fundraising purposes at the street fair, Hissam said.

“We invite everybody to get involved to make this a big success,” he said. “We’re hunting for all kinds of ideas.”

For information, call (304) 387-1690 and leave a message.

A parade and fireworks will be held on June 28, a Saturday. Rides will be free during a Saturday matinee time of 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. The remainder of the week, the fair will be open from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Hissam said this year’s Fall Bash mailing, with information about ticket sales, is scheduled to go out in the next 10 days.