Journal-Times (Grayson, KY)

November 20, 2013

OHFD: A flame at risk of flickering out

Third of a series

By Joe Lewis - Staff Writer
Journal-Times

Nov. 20, 2013 — Olive Hill boasts one of the most highly trained fire and rescue teams in the nation but the city fire department also is among the most underfunded organizations in the county.

Each year, firefighters from Olive Hill undergo from 120 to 150 hours of fire and safety training.

What makes their curriculum unique, however, is that it’s directly passed on from instructors who are educated in the most modern fire and safety rescue techniques.

Ohio Task Force 1 is a team comprised of first responders from throughout the region. It is among the top urban search and rescue operations in the world.

There are only 12 full-time members of this elite team and two of them are part of the Olive Hill Fire Department - Chief Wes Gilliam and Captain Paul Richards.

In addition, 14 Olive Hill firefighters hold fire service instructor certification and seven of those also are adjunct instructors with the Kentucky Fire Commission.

Despite OHFD’s impressive training and experience credentials, however, the department finds itself in financial straits due to lack of funding.

When Gilliam took over as chief in 2007, the total operating budget was $119,000, twice as much as the current city appropriation to the department.

Solving the financial woes will not be easy, though. There are only two options available to fire departments to raise substantial revenues.

The first is adopting a subscription-based service requiring property owners outside the city limits to pay an annual fee.

Those who choose not to pay the fee would still receive fire service but would be liable for all costs associated with calls made to their property by the fire department.

The second option is the formation of a taxing district. This would allow the fire department to raise revenues by implementing a property tax for its fire district.

Forming a taxing district, however, would have to be approved by Fiscal Court.

Olive Hill Mayor Kenny Fankell has stated that the city’s lack of financial resources could lead to the fire department being restricted to calls within the city limits.

Most of the department’s volunteer base has expressed that such a move would leave them no choice but to quit the force, since most of them live outside the city.

Losing the fire department would also have grave circumstances for homeowners in western Carter County, as they would see drastic increases in their fire insurance premiums – perhaps as much as 300 percent.

“Nobody wants another tax, but it’s better than the alternative of having insurance premiums go up,” said Gilliam.

“If we are restricted to the city limits, it’s likely that the department would cease to exist. And even if we managed to get it back together at some point, it would probably never be as good as it is now,” the chief added.

Given Olive Hill’s bleak financial outlook, the prospect of even more cuts to the fire department’s budget could be on the horizon.

If no source is found for additional revenue, it could be the death blow for a revered fire and rescue organization.

Joe Lewis can be reached at jlewis@journal-times.com or by telephone at 286-4201.