Firefighting tradition under threat

by Alan Hodge

Cook’s volunteer firefighters drench flames during a practice burn on Mt. Holly-Huntersville Road.

Since its founding more than a half century ago, the Cooks Community Volunteer Fire Department has seen the once rural area it serves experience some of the most explosive retail and residential growth in Mecklenburg County. Now, not only is Cook’s VFD faced with changing demographics in its service area, it also confronts challenges in funding.

Founded in 1953 at 3122 Mount Holly-Huntersville Road in the Shuffletown community, Cook’s VFD is housed in basically the same red brick building, with a couple of additions, it has called home since the beginning. Currently, 31 firefighters serve as volunteers. The station is equipped with a fire engine, brush fire truck, tanker engine, rescue ambulance and two boats.

The station stays busy. In 2009, it responded to 568 calls. That number increased to 619 calls in 2010. According to Cook’s Chief Jim Phipps, about a third of the calls involved fires and the rest were rescue calls.

Volunteer Tyler Moretz explained the spirit that drives the Cook’s department.

“When that pager hits we are out to help our community,” he said. “As long as we have a truck, we will go.”

Another Cook’s volunteer, Bill Elwood summed up the feeling many folks in the area have for the guys.

“A lot of people have a smile when they see us,” Elwood said. “They treat us with respect. We’ve covered this area over 50 years and offer the same level of service as the City of Charlotte Fire Department.”

Cook’s Assistant Chief Kurt Stansberry has volunteered for nine years. He started when he was 17-years-old.

“The volunteers are from this community,” Stansberry said. “The people know us personally. We go to church with them, and they trust us.”

However, in spite of that camaraderie within the department and with the community, the station found itself under a microscope last year.

Mecklenburg County commissioned a study entitled Fire Service Assessment done by a Pennsylvania-based consultant. The 178-page document analyzed the current situation in the county regarding fire service, especially in the areas where annexation by the City of Charlotte could affect 17 volunteer fire departments such as Cook’s, financially and in the scope of their activities responding to fire and rescue situations.

Tyler Moretz (left) and Bill Elwood (right) volunteer at Cook’s Volunteer Fire Department.

The study recommended the county shift Cook’s responsibilities to the neighboring West Mecklenburg Volunteer Fire Department, establish a tax district to fund volunteer departments and merge  Cook’s volunteers and equipment with fire and rescue organizations.

Much to the relief of Chief Phipps and the other crew at Cook’s, the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners have tabled any changes the study recommended – for now.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Pendergraph acts as a liaison between the county and the volunteer fire departments.

“The assessment was tabled because there was too little time to give it the attention necessary and there were too many concerns from some of the towns about how it was going to work,” Pendergraph said. “I suggested we table it for a year to work out the details.”

Even if Cook’s department has dodged one bullet and stays in operation, Chief Phipps and others are worried that a decrease in its service area due to annexation by the City of Charlotte could be a serious blow.

Mecklenburg County reimburses the fire department for operations but, Charlotte has no such agreement.

Cook’s receives $137,500 from the county a year. The station has to make up the difference to cover things such as radio repair, Phipps said.

“Our discussion is how do we get paid?” Phipps said. “Our budget is $200,000 a year just to stay even. Two barbecue fundraisers a year won’t cover that. If the county decreases our area, they cut back on funding. It also decreases the area where we can solicit for donations.”

If Mecklenburg County cuts its funding, the department could survive about six months, Phipps said.

“If our funding goes away, we go away,” he said.

Phipps cited the case of the Pinoca fire department that operated off Hovis Road from 1949 until funding dried up in the mid 90s and it was forced to close.

Cook’s Treasurer Tom Lineberger summed up the situation the station currently finds itself in.

“Our demise is not imminent,’ Lineberger said. “Our dilemma is how long will we be here.”

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