EFD Chief Retiring After 40-year Career

Mayor Jerry Marco presents a plaque to retiring EFD Chief Tom Meader.

Elkins, W. Va., April 21, 2021: Elkins Fire Department Chief Tom Meader announced his retirement at last night’s special council meeting after more than 40 years of volunteer and paid service at EFD. His retirement is effective April 30. Captain Steven Himes was appointed interim chief and a committee was formed to search for Meader’s replacement.

The year 1979 saw two important developments in the history of the Elkins Fire Department. That was the year that EFD gained new room to grow in its building at 216 Fourth Street, after the city government’s administrative offices were moved from there to the former federal building on Davis Avenue. That was also the year that Meader joined the department as a volunteer firefighter.

At the time, Meader was operating Tom’s Sunoco service station, at the corner of Randolph Avenue and Davis Avenue. Friends who were volunteer firefighters suggested that he should apply.

“It seemed like a good fit,” says Meader. “I had my own business, and I was located close to the station, so I’d be able to get down there quickly. I thought I’d give it a try.”

Meader soon realized he had both a knack and a passion for the work of a firefighter.

“I loved every minute of it,” he says. “I loved the work, I loved the training, I loved the camaraderie. There’s a reason why, once someone joins the department, they very seldom end up leaving. It just gets in your blood.”

In 2001, having sold his service station to future Randolph County Commissioner Chris See, Meader joined the City of Elkins Water Distribution Department. He was still serving as a volunteer firefighter, however, and—in 2004—he accepted the then-unpaid position of EFD chief. Four years later, in 2008, the Elkins council appointed Meader the first paid EFD chief since 1986.

“It just got to a point where the budget was too big and there was too much else going on for the chief job to stay volunteer,” says Meader.

Even as chief, Meader maintained a hands-on role in the department’s emergency responses. Until 2016, the department had only one watch-standing firefighter on duty per shift, but best safety practices required at least a two-person team before a fire engine could depart the station.

“There were a lot of times when it was just me and the duty man,” says Meader. “I fought a lot of fires even once I made chief.”

Once on-scene, these first-responding skeleton crews were typically joined by volunteers. Meader says volunteers were and still are crucial to the department’s success.

“Our volunteers are fantastic, and we really couldn’t do what we do without them,” says Meader. “You’re talking about guys who will get up at 2 a.m., fight a fire, then go to work by 6 a.m. somewhere else. They don’t have to do this, but they choose to. It gets in their blood.”

Still, as time went on, Meader began to notice trends that concerned him.

“There’s less and less people coming out to volunteer,” he says. “Every volunteer department is struggling to get volunteers these days, and some of them are going to go out of existence. It’s just a changing world, and you have to move forward. You can’t just stay there circling the drain.”

Meader’s plan for moving forward depended on increasing the number of paid, civil-service firefighters working at the department. (Although the chief position is paid, it is not a civil-service position.) There was a problem, though.

“We just didn’t have the budget,” says Meader. “That’s when I started looking at expanding the fire fee. Why shouldn’t the people outside the city pay for the services they get from us, just like the people inside?”

Property owners inside Elkins had long paid a fire-protection service fee to help support the department, but EFD—which answers an average of 650 calls a year—is required by the state fire marshal’s office to respond both inside and outside of city limits throughout an overall region known as the department’s “first-due area.” The EFD first-due area is 150 square miles and home to more than 15,000 people.

After establishing that West Virginia Code §8-13-13 grants cities the authority to charge such a fee, even outside city limits, Meader worked with council and his fellow administrative officers to make his proposal a reality. In 2015, council authorized collection of fire fees throughout the EFD first-due area.

The department is now entirely funded by the proceeds of this fee, which are restricted solely for the department’s use. Fire-fee income enabled the department to expand first to seven and now—as of last night’s swearing in of two new civil-service members—nine professional firefighters, or three per shift, in addition to the chief.

The predictable revenues of the fire fee also enable the department to plan more effectively for the purchase of new fire engines, which must be replaced every 20 years and which currently start at $450,000.

The expanded fire-fee income also helped Meader achieve his goal of improving the department’s Public Protection Classification (PPC) issued by the Insurance Services Office (ISO). ISO PPC classifications are based on multiple factors, but one of the most important is the average number of on-duty firefighters per shift in a given year.

“Getting to three firefighters on duty per shift helped us improve our ISO rating from a 5 to a 3,” says Meader.

According to the ISO website, out of 523 West Virginia fire departments rated by the organization, EFD is one of only 36 with a score of 3 or better. PPC scores for a given community are part of the formulas that insurance companies use to establish rates for structures located there; although these formulas are complex, lower ISO PPC ratings generally benefit policyholders.

“I’m very pleased with everything we’ve been able to accomplish because of the fire fees,” says Meader. “We couldn’t have done it any other way.”

In addition to the nine paid civil-service positions, the department has around 30 volunteers. Professional and volunteer personnel are qualified to provide emergency medical services and perform vehicular extraction, HAZMAT containment, and trench, high-angle, and swift-water rescue. EFD also has eight certified divers. Multiple times per year, EFD firefighters visit area schools to instruct students about smoke detectors and fire safety.

When asked what he plans to do in his retirement, Meader says it might not look too different from what he does today.

“I love my job and I hate to retire but the time has come,” he says. “I’ll probably still keep volunteering though because I really can’t stand to leave it behind. I’ve been in this building and running out to fires and everything else almost every day since 1979. Every day was a different experience, and that’s what I love about it. Anyone who thinks they might be interested in firefighting, I tell them there’s always something new to learn, and when you can help someone in a tragic situation it’s the greatest feeling in the world.”

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