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Spotsylvania fire volunteers to keep working

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It wasn’t even close.

By a show of hands, more than 100 members of the Spotsylvania Volunteer Fire Department on Wednesday voted to continue manning three county stations on nights and weekends, organization President Mark Kuechler said.

Only days beforehand, the volunteer agency’s leaders—upset about tougher mandatory training standards and smarting from “insulting” remarks made by career personnel at a Saturday Fire and EMS Commission meeting—suggested they might stop staffing stations altogether.

Kuechler attributed that response to “emotions running high,” and said the special Wednesday meeting allowed volunteer firefighters to air their concerns constructively.

“It was a good forum to diffuse feelings,” Kuechler said. “I think we accomplished that.”

The county Board of Supervisors is scheduled to discuss some of the issues at its next meeting Aug. 13. That includes a proposal—voted on by the volunteers at the special meeting—to drop the current training deadlines and reduce the required class hours for a basic firefighter.

“This is not an ultimatum kind of thing,” Kuechler said. “We’re looking for some compromise.”

Tension has spiked in recent months between volunteer firefighters and career personnel at the county Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management.

The county is scheduled to start enforcing its minimum training standards on Jan. 1, 2014, for volunteers who joined at least two years ago. New volunteers have two years to meet the requirements, which amount to almost 400 hours of training for a basic firefighter. The number of hours increases for those who want to operate fire trucks or become officers.

Volunteers who don’t have all of the necessary training can still serve but will have limited roles.

Career staff complete the training during a 22-week recruit school after they are hired.

A career firefighter and fire commission member called the standards “basic” at this past weekend’s commission meeting. He added that if somebody can’t complete the necessary training in two years, “then maybe you don’t have time to volunteer.”

That was one of the comments that upset officials with the Spotsylvania Volunteer Fire Department.

The organization is proposing that volunteers be allowed to become full-fledged firefighters after completing an entry-level firefighter program and a class about hazardous materials. That alone represents more than 200 hours of training.

“The idea is to get people into the system, get them exposed to real life and then start building on those blocks,” Kuechler said.

Volunteers would be given two years to complete that training, in addition to a more advanced 55-hour firefighter class.

The existing training deadlines would be dropped, including a 2015 deadline for officers.

Supervisor Timothy McLaughlin, who attended the volunteer agency’s meeting this week, said he supports the proposals and hopes to settle the matter soon.

“Nobody objected to all of the training,” said McLaughlin, who has been an ally to volunteers since he took office last year. “It was just how they were trying to implement it.”

Supervisor Benjamin Pitts, who has clashed with volunteers in the past, said he’s disappointed by the recent turn of events.

He noted that the minimum training standards were implemented after a fatal fire in 2010. Internal and external reviews revealed mistakes by the volunteers who responded to that blaze, which killed 43-year-old Sandy Hill.

The county added material to its training standards to address some of those issues.

“To reduce the training standards only puts us back to the stage prior to Sandy Hill’s death, and the findings of these review reports mean absolutely nothing,” Pitts said in an email.

The updated training standards for volunteers are a direct result of the fatal fire, but its repeated mention in news coverage has frustrated volunteers, said Kuechler.

“It seems we can’t get past a news article without mentioning the fatal fire,” said Kuechler, referring to The Free Lance–Star’s coverage.

He noted that the volunteer stations were overstaffed on the day of that fire because of the threat of a large snowstorm.

“We had so much response that it kind of overwhelmed command,” he said.

Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402