Weirton should add firefighters

Some Weirton City Council members seem to agree with Fire Chief Jerry Shumate that the community needs more paid firefighters. The question, as Councilman George Ash put it last week, is “how are we going to pay for it?”

“We have been quite grossly understaffed for years,” Shumate told council last Wednesday. He explained the fire department has 24 firefighters, one of them a volunteer. Just across the Ohio River, Steubenville, with approximately the same population as Weirton, has 34 firefighters. Wheeling, with less than twice the population, has 90, Shumate noted.

Shumate proposes applying for a federal grant under the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response program. He would like to add five firefighters to Weirton’s department.

If approved, a S.A.F.E.R. grant would cover 75 percent of the cost of new firefighters during the first and second years and 35 percent the third year. After that, the city would be on its own.

It would cost about $680,000 a year to cover the increase sought by Shumate.

Obviously, more firefighters would mean better protection against fires and a better emergency medical program. It also could reduce insurance rates for owners of homes and commercial buildings.

In discussing the obstacle of paying for more firefighters, Mayor Harold Miller told council business development has picked up in Weirton. That should result in more revenue for municipal government in the future.

But Miller’s comment raises another point: A stronger fire department could appeal to potential new businesses, especially those involved in industry.

Council members’ first responsibility is a balanced budget without resorting to new taxes and fees, of course. So that has to be a guiding factor in discussing Shumate’s proposal.

It may be that council members cannot see their way clear to add the full number of firefighters the chief wants. Adding to Weirton’s cost of government by $680,000 within four years, as would occur under the SAFER grant scenario, is a daunting prospect.

Still, beefing up the fire department is something council members should consider. In terms of services to residents and businesses, safety needs to be very high on the priority list.

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