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Rowan fire marshal seeks to clear up confusion, worry caused by solicitation letter

SALISBURY — Local fire officials hope to clear up confusion that might’ve been caused by a letter sent to some Rowan County residents by a national volunteer firefighter organization.

Rowan County Fire Marshal Deborah Horne said she has determined at least four people in the county have received a solicitation letter from the Volunteer Firefighter Alliance. One of the letters sent out by the Tennessee-based nonprofit organization and received by a local resident states, “Dear Friend: It’s a terrifying thought; your home is on fire. You call 911. And no one comes! You watch as your home burns to the ground.”

Horne said the notion presented in the letter that there might not be a response to a fire is simply not true and is only a scare tactic.

“If your house is on fire, someone is coming,” Horne said.

Horne said she was worried people who received the letter would get the impression that they need to send a donation to the organization, which is not affiliated with any Rowan County department, in order to ensure a response from firefighters. That is not the case because residents fund local fire departments through their property taxes, Horne said.

Bob Parnell, chief of the Salisbury Fire Department, said when a structural fire occurs and the home’s owner calls 911, there are typically several local fire departments who respond at the same time.

“For structure fires, multiple fire stations are dispatched,” Parnell said. “Cleveland, for example, has two fire stations. You would also probably get Woodleaf or Scotch-Irish, Rowan, Iredell. Those departments all work together to respond to structural fires combined.”

Alan Bohms, the executive director and founder of Volunteer Firefighter Alliance, defended the validity of the scenario put forth in his letter, in which someone’s house burns and there is no response from any local fire departments.

“Is there a possibility that at some point they’re going to make a phone call and a firefighter might not come? Absolutely, I’ve already seen it first hand,” Bohms said.

Bohms said he started the organization in 2014 after noticing funding and resource deficiencies at his own volunteer fire department in eastern Tennessee.

“Myself and a handful of other guys in the department saw issues that seemed like they might be able to be better solved outside of the organization, outside of the fire department,” Bohms said.

Bohms said the organization grew with time and now operates on a national scale. They run letter campaigns in many states, including North Carolina. Bohms asserted that no more than four letters are sent out to a single zip code and said the money raised goes to help volunteer fire departments in those areas.

Horne said she believes the Volunteer Firefighter Alliance is legitimate, but the best way to support local fire departments is to simply make a donation directly to them, not to a national organization.

Over the years, Bohms said, there have been several instances when local departments and fire officials have expressed confusion over the letters. He said the confusion comes from a lack of knowledge about his organization. If anyone has concerns about the organization or the letters, Bohms said he encourages them to call his organization.

But a quick Google search shows a number of articles written by publications in various places warning people not to send donations to the Volunteer Firefighter Alliance. 

Bohms contends the Volunteer Firefighter Alliance, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is legitimate and helps fire departments across the country. He said the organization has sent materials to 86 departments in North Carolina over the past three years and that they help recruit volunteer firefighters nationwide. Recently, Bohms said the organization donated $20,000 to help rebuild a fire department damaged by tornadoes in Alabama.

Parnell said the Salisbury Fire Department received some informational brochures from the Volunteer Firefighter Alliance several years ago, but that’s his only knowledge of the organization.

Chief State Fire Marshal Brian Taylor agreed with Horne’s assessment that the Volunteer Firefighter Alliance is a legitimate organization. However, he also echoed her advice to potential donors and stated that people should give directly to their local fire department.

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