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Oldest volunteer fire department in state going strong since 1792

By Staff | Oct 14, 2016

Firefighters have responded to the bell in Shepherdstown since 1792, and they are still going strong today.

Over that time many, changes have taken place in population, firefighting science and how people work and live. Shepherdstown VFD has adapted every time.

“We are very fortunate to have a fair amount of volunteers,” said Fire Chief Ross Morgan. “I guess it’s because of the great department that we have.”

The department has 60 to 70 volunteers with around 50 being active. The 370 fire calls and 1,300 EMS calls keep them busy during the year. The community continues to be supportive of the fire station, volunteers and their needs.

“We do receive a lot of help for our fundraisers from the community,” Morgan said. “They don’t want to join but you can rely on them every week.”

Shepherdstown VFD also has a good working relationship between the firefighters and EMTs/para-medics.

“We’re all one house. We are all the same entity,” said Marshall DeMeritt, EMS chief. “If an engine is alerted an ambulance will go with it just to support our guys and be there for them. We’re definitely one house and Chief Morgan and I, we manage it that way too. There’s no wall between the fire engines and the ambulances like there are is in some places.”

That type of teamwork has proven to save lives, and it also makes the working environment a little easier to live in. Both chiefs want their volunteers to be cross-trained so a firefighter could serve on the ambulance and an EMT/para-medic could take a fire call if needed. For the chiefs, it’s all a matter of how to serve the community best.

Jefferson County has supplied the fire station with one paramedic 24 hours a day, each day of the week. That helps with the station’s shortage of volunteer manpower in the day when everyone is at work.

“Every fire department in Jefferson County has an ambulance,” DeMeritt said. “They are responsible for their area, but the county does provide a career paramedic to supplement the lack of ALS volunteers.”

With a budget that is climbing and more fire and EMS calls each year the department is sometimes very extended. Add to that the need to do constant fundraisers and one can see the need for more volunteers. The demand of the volunteer men and women serving their community can be taxing on their home life.

Many people in the community believe that the fees and money that the fire department receives are enough to cover the entire budget. DeMeritt said that’s not the case, as the fee only covers paid paramedic staff.

“When we send our annual mailers people will call a little more often with ‘hey, I thought this was covered,’ which we appreciate because that gives us an opportunity to educate them,” he said.

Even the additional money received from the county was not enough to meet the budget, he said.

“It’s important to point out through that $85,000 won’t cover the cost of EMS supplies and fuel,” DeMeritt said.

The Shepherdstown Volunteer Fire Department does have an advantage over some other fire stations because they have a live-in program. For some college students that could be the difference between staying in school or dropping out.

“They have to be in school or have a job and they just need to run calls when available and in return, they get free room and board,” Morgan said.

Students who volunteer as a firefighter are asked if they would also like to be an EMT and vice versa.

“They’re not required to be but they are strongly encouraged,” Morgan said.

Additional volunteers will be needed in the future, DeMeritt said, in part because of an aging population and a growing university. More mutual aid calls will be added in the future as well, he said.

“We go into Washington County a lot. They come here a lot. We’re working on that relationship in Berkeley (County),” he said.

In about a year the station will be home to a brand new ladder truck that cost almost $1 million. They will only have to pay about 20 percent of the cost.

“We just received a grant for a new ladder truck which was a godsend,” Morgan said.

Both chiefs explained that they are happy to hear from the public and answer any questions they may have.

“Our door is open 24/7 and we encourage the public, anytime you want to stop in, you’ll hear me tell all of them (firefighters) ‘the keys are in the truck, take them for a ride,'” Morgan said.