Fire company to kick off capital campaign

All property owners within the Bethany Beach Fire District, which extends from the Indian River Bridge to the Maryland-Delaware line and from the ocean to the Inland Bays, will receive a written request for support over the next few weeks.

The request comes from the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company, as part of a new $2 million building fund campaign to pay off the mortgage on the company’s new fire station, facing Route 1 at the corner of Hollywood Street in Bethany Beach.

Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company President Bob Webster and Fire Chief Rick Parrett Jr. formally announced the campaign June 3, at a meeting of the Sea Colony Homeowners’ Association.

The company is asking that property owners consider pledging a sliding-scale percentage ranging from one-fifth of 1 percent to four-fifths of 1 percent of the value of their property, over five years. (For a $500,000 asset at two-fifths of 1 percent, the pledge would be $2,000 over five years, or $400 per year.) In most cases, that will be tax-deductible, since the company is a registered non-profit.

The new campaign marks a shift from the BBFVC’s traditional fundraising campaigns, noted member Bob Minutoli.

“The company has been for years engaging in a variety of fundraising efforts,” he emphasized. That includes an annual mailer requesting donations from the public and annual raffles of vehicles – a pickup truck last year and a Harley Davidson motorcycle this year.

“They generally take a fair amount of effort and produce, at best, modest proceeds,” Minutoli said. “Because of the size of the need with the new station and the desire not to place additional fundraising burdens on the members — who are already making a very substantial contribution — the decision was made to reach out to the community,” he explained.

In the company’s request to the public and in an extensive press release explaining the basis of the new campaign, organizers explain myriad reason why the company’s recent expansion into the new fire hall and purchase of new equipment have been necessary, as well as the benefits support for the fire company provides back to the community. But the core idea is that recent shifts in the community have forced the company to adapt to changing times.

“We wanted to tell them that we’ve had to grow because of what has been going on in the community. ‘We’d like to have you help us bear the burden,’” Minutoli described as the message of the requests.

Minutoli cites a number of inescapable facts for the citizens of the area and the emergency personnel who serve them, and the basis upon which the fire company went forward with constructing the new two-story addition to the old fire hall:

• The permanent population of Sussex County grew more than 52 percent between 1990 and 2005, adding more than 60,000 residents — many in the coastal communities of Bethany Beach, South Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island that the company serves. Seasonal population has followed suit.

This growth has generated a significant increase in emergency service calls, BBFVC officials said. Last year alone, the company’s call volume grew almost 12 percent, from 565 in 2004 to 630 in 2005. The increased number of calls requires additional, more sophisticated and larger pieces of equipment that could not be accommodated in the old building.

• Sussex County’s fire companies, including Bethany Beach, remain all-volunteer in a time when attracting volunteers is harder and harder, Minutoli said. The new station includes live-in facilities for six firefighters, who exchange tours of duty evenings and weekends for living accommodations.

These facilities address two needs, BBFVC officials noted. Previously, younger members on their own could not find affordable housing within the district, which greatly impaired recruiting efforts. Second, many of the company’s members work in the district and can respond quickly during the day. Very few are able to live in the district and have longer drives to get to the station at night or on weekends, especially during the season. The firefighters living at the station assure a quick response when staffing might otherwise be constrained.

The new building also has a bunk room for additional members who may be required for extended periods during a natural or other disaster, such as a major hurricane, as well as room for someone to man the new communications room 24/7 in the event of a severe emergency or local disaster.

• The old station is below the local flood elevation (5.5 feet) and it has flooded in the past. This situation, company officials said, is unacceptable for a primary emergency responder — a shortcoming that had been noted in several disaster-preparedness reviews. The new station is at elevation 8.0 feet.

While that clearly lays out the reasons for investing in the new building, fire company officials are hopeful that the members of the community they support will find ample reason to support the fire company on principle alone:

• Emergencies can happen to anyone at any time, they emphasized. The company had 565 calls in 2004 and 630 calls last year and, based on activity to date, will have a new record this year. More than 60 percent of these calls were fires, auto accidents or medical emergencies.

• The company’s members, most of whom are unable to live in the district, are ready to serve 24 hours a day, seven days a week, regardless of the circumstances. During 2005, company volunteers invested more than 12,000 person-hours to respond to calls, to attend training, to maintain equipment, to handle administrative matters and to perform all other necessary functions, they noted.

• The company’s members are friends and neighbors and people seen every day in the community, BBFVC officials emphasized. They include local businesspeople such as firefighter Richard Mais (McCabe’s Gourmet Market), Past President Michael Wilgus (Wilgus Associates), Past Fire Chief/Building Committee Co-Chair Wilbert Powell (Bethany Arms), Firefighter Monte Wisbrock (Bethany Resort Rentals), Fire Police Lt. Virginia Childress-Davidson (Sea Shell City), Past Fire Chief Chad Hickman (Jack Hickman Real Estate), Firefighter Gene Hazzard (Hazzard Electric), Assistant Fire Chief/Assistant Secretary Brian Martin (Martin Services) and Past Chief Engineer Steve Murray and his son, Past Chief/Capt. Doug Murray (Murray Property Management), many who have been serving for decades.

Eight members, they noted, are career emergency medical technicians or police officers who give further of themselves as volunteers: Deputy Fire Chief Tom Moore (Rehoboth Beach EMS), Firefighter Luke Powell (Rehoboth EMS), Lt. Mickey Wissman (Millville EMS), Assistant Fire Chief Brian McConologue (Millville EMS), Firefighter Michael Suit (Ocean City 911 Dispatcher), Firefighter Sarah Murray (Bridgeville EMS), Assistant Fire Chief/Assistant Secretary Justin Norman (Ocean View Police Department) and Capt./Vice President Kristin Miller (OVPD). Elected officials serving include Treasurer/Fire Police Lt. Wayne Fuller (Bethany Beach town councilman).

The company also has multigenerational members, including the Websters, Parretts, Hickmans, Powells, Normans and Murrays, and married couples where both spouses are members (two sets of Murrays and the Hudsons).

Providing quality emergency service is a costly proposition and public sector support does not cover all costs, officials noted.

Last year, the company received approximately 87 percent of its annual budget in combined totals of property insurance rebates from the state (64 percent), building permit fees from the county (16 percent) and another 7 percent from other sources such as room rental.

Its annual mail campaign (which is currently under way and which is different from this special project), raffles, commemorative brick sales and similar activities have allowed the company to close the gap between such public support and real costs each year (13 percent in 2005). But it has, they emphasized, been at the cost of significant commitment of members’ time above and beyond operations, training and administration.

Additionally, they pointed out that occupancy of the new station will present new financial challenges for the company, owing to the $2 million mortgage used to build it and the additional expenses required to operate it.

In addition to that, the company recently took out an equipment loan to purchase a new $1.1 million aerial ladder truck that officials said greatly enhances the company’s ability to handle high emergencies and other situations where apparatus access is constrained.

The bottom line: substantial financial needs for the company to keep up with the overall growth in the area, as well as increasing year-round populations. As a company, they’ve made the initial outlay to help the firefighters keep up with those increasing demands, and now they’re asking the public to contribute toward paying off that debt and keeping the company going into the future.

Building Committee Co-Chair Wilbert Powell said, “It took over six years to realize our vision for the new station, but the community can be proud of the final product. The new facility positions us to properly serve our fire district for years to come and will help us attract and retain the quality of volunteer that our company needs.

“We thank our members, who suffered through much inconvenience and who devoted many hours in support of the Building Committee, our designers and builders, our elected officials and everyone else that made this project possible and we hope the community will join us in absorbing the financial impact,” he concluded.

Already, some area businesses and property owners have heeded that call. The company on June 3 also announced initial pledges of nearly $250,000 toward its $2 million goal. Initial contributors included eight homeowners and the following businesses: Iland Art Gallery, Mercantile Peninsula Bank, Miranda & Hardt Contracting, Royal Plus Electric, Sea Colony Tennis Center, SLD Investments and Wilgus Associates.

It helps take a burden off those who already volunteer for an extremely dangerous job.

“Our members already contribute 300 hours on average — many of them much, much more. We didn’t want to ask to those same people to go out selling raffle tickets,” Minutoli emphasized.

“We had the sense people would be responsive to that. They appreciate the level of service that we provide,” he said. “And these days, with the heightened awareness of disaster preparedness, we thought that people might say, ‘That is a worthy place for us to make a contribution.’”

In addition to the June 3 announcement, the BBFVC is launching their new campaign with an opportunity for the public to visit the facility in which the company has already invested so much.

An open house on June 11 will offer guided tours of the facility, the chance to see the new equipment and to talk with fire officials about public safety issues. A pig roast and other refreshments will also be featured during the event, from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sunday. Limited on-site parking will be available.