West Virginia Fire Chief Vying For Fire Training Facility

Kanawha County is about to have a lot of money available for public safety projects, and Charleston Fire Chief Grant Gunnoe has a hot idea about how to use some of it.

Gunnoe is trying to drum up support for building a fire training facility somewhere in the county. He already has strong support from county Commissioner Kent Carper.

"I intend to make this my life's work over the next three years," Carper said.

The county expects to have about $700,000 a year available for public safety grants beginning in July, because in 2002, voters approved earmarking 5 percent of the bus and ambulance levy for those grants. Half of that will go to grants to police agencies around the county, while the other half is for fire departments.

From that latter half, the commissioners plan to give an additional $5,000 each to fire departments around the county on top of the $15,000 the county gives each of them annually. But Carper figures that would leave about $180,000. Instead of doling it out in competitive grants for fire departments, he would prefer to put it toward the proposed fire training facility.

Gunnoe said such a facility is "badly needed" in Kanawha County, which has more people than any other county in the state. Huntington and Beckley have their own training facilities, but when Charleston firefighters want training, they generally have to go to a facility operated by West Virginia University in Morgantown, he said.

"With budgets being tight, it is very expensive to send someone to Morgantown," Gunnoe said. The costs include a few nights of lodging for those receiving the training and scheduling other firefighters to cover for them while they're gone. Usually, Gunnoe can afford to send only new members of his department to that training, but he would like other members to be able to train on a regular basis.

A new training facility in Kanawha County could be built piece by piece, he said, but the first component local fire departments need is a four-story drill tower that would allow firefighters to practice using ladders and advancing hoses up stairways. It would also have windows so they could practice using ventilation.

Charleston firefighters sometimes use the parking building at the Civic Center for limited training, Gunnoe said, but they can't put smoke into it.

Some companies provide components like drill towers so that training facilities can be built one piece at a time. Gunnoe figures it would cost about $150,000 to get started with a drill tower. He would next like to add classrooms and units for confined-space rescue and trench rescue training. If enough land were available, Gunnoe would also like a driving course for practice by emergency vehicle drivers.

"That's the way most of these facilities have been built," he said. "The biggest thing would be acquiring the land first."

Gunnoe would like to find a way to get the land through donation or at a very low price. He suggested that the site of an old school building no longer in use might be a good possibility, although he would prefer not to put the training facility in a residential neighborhood. Huntington's facility is at an old school, he said.

So far, Gunnoe has found strong interest in the proposal from a couple of fire chiefs in the county, and he plans to contact others around the county leading up to a meeting with them in about a month. All the departments in the county would share the facility and rotate teaching responsibilities, he said.

"The first thing is to get everyone to commit to the concept," Gunnoe said. "It would give your departments here a chance to train together."

Gunnoe said that, in addition to Carper, Charleston Mayor Danny Jones supports the proposal, and he thinks that's a strong combination.