RSS feed of this blog

Victim’s kin join fray over fire training

MORE: Read more Spotsylvania County news

Cheryl Hill–Parker vows not to let Spotsylvania County officials forget her sister’s death in a house fire more than three years ago.

And she says she believes Sandy Hill would still be alive if the volunteer firefighters who responded to the incident on Feb. 5, 2010, had been, in her words, “well trained.”

“We want you to learn from this incident . . . and to never let another family grieve on the loss of a loved one because of the many mistakes,” Hill–Parker wrote in a letter Friday to Board of Supervisors Chairman Paul Trampe. Included with the note was a gut-wrenching transcript of her sister’s 911 call.

It’s unclear exactly how much training the responding firefighters had, though an assistant chief with Chancellor Volunteer Fire and Rescue maintains the volunteers were “properly certified.”

Hill–Parker says she decided to write the letter after receiving a call from a Spotsylvania resident, who was apparently worried about the fate of the county’s minimum training standards for career and volunteer firefighters.

That training, almost 400 hours for a basic firefighter, was adopted in the wake of Sandy Hill’s death.

It’s set to be enforced starting Jan. 1, 2014, though the Board of Supervisors may scrap that deadline—as well as a 2015 deadline for higher-level officers—at the request of a volunteer firefighters group. Supervisors, who have already pushed the initial deadline back a year, are scheduled to discuss the training standards at a meeting Tuesday.

The makeup of the board has changed since the standards were initially approved, with some of the newer supervisors expressing support for the volunteers.

From Hill–Parker’s perspective, the volunteers don’t want to hold up their end of the deal.

“I don’t care how long it takes to do the training,” Hill–Parker, who is from Bowie, Md., said in a telephone interview Friday. “If it’s going to avoid what happened in 2010 . . . it’s all worth it.”

It took firefighters about 20 minutes to locate 43-year-0ld Sandy Hill, who died of smoke inhalation in her second-floor bedroom after making the panicked call to a 911 operator. Volunteers did save a 17-year-old girl who had collapsed in another bedroom.

Internal and external reviews of the incident revealed mistakes by the first-responders. A subsequent report in November 2010 by the Virginia Department of Fire Programs stressed the need for an organized training program.

Mark Kuechler, president of the Spotsylvania Volunteer Fire Department, says the agency simply wants to eliminate what he calls “arbitrary” deadlines—not water down the training standards.

“Nobody’s talking about doing away with the standards,” he said. “I don’t know how to get that message across.”

It’s unclear how many volunteers have completed the training, though Kuechler has said many cannot do so by the upcoming deadline.

Spotsylvania firefighters who haven’t received the required certifications by the deadline can continue to serve but only in limited roles.

The Spotsylvania Volunteer Fire Department, however, 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 is more than 200 hours of training.

Volunteers would be given two years to complete that training, in addition to a more advanced 50 to 75 hour firefighter class. That schedule would enable firefighters to gain practical experience sooner, volunteers say.

One volunteer indicated that many of the Chancellor Volunteer Fire and Rescue firefighters who responded to the blaze that killed Sandy Hill had most of the training in the latest proposal.

“We are confident that all our members were properly certified and had sufficient training to handle the incident,” Chancellor Assistant Chief Bob Weber said in an email. “We feel that a lack of training of the responders was not a contributing factor to the death of Sandy Hill. There were many factors working against us that night.”

Volunteers have said the house was very cluttered, which made it difficult to find Hill’s location.

Kuechler also noted that more volunteers than usual were on duty because of the threat of bad weather that day, causing a breakdown in command.

The volunteer proposal does appear to exclude about 50 hours of training that is required under the current standards, sources say. That includes courses on rescuing people from vehicles and responding to dangerous situations.

In addition, even though Spotsylvania added 66 hours of training to its entry-level firefighter program to address deficiencies in the handling of the Hill case, volunteers can take that training in other localities without the additional hours.

Career Battalion Chief Jay Cullinan said at a meeting last month that it would be difficult for an officer to supervise firefighters with various levels of training.

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

The long-standing tension between volunteer and career firefighters has come to a head in recent months. The Spotsylvania Volunteer Fire Department even threatened to stop staffing stations, though its membership opted against that at a recent special meeting.

Kuechler summed up the organization’s wishes in a recent letter to County Administrator Doug Barnes. That letter is the basis for the discussion at next week’s meeting.

In addition to the training deadlines, supervisors will mull a proposal to exempt higher-level officers from the minimum standards if they have a certain amount of experience. The requirements are more rigorous for officers.

Some officials have accused veteran officers, not the rank-and-file, of driving the complaints against training.

Hill–Parker, Sandy Hill’s sister, said she and her mother won’t be at Tuesday’s meeting.

“It’s just too emotional for her,” she said of her mom, Lillian Hill.

She says she doesn’t have any sympathy for the volunteers who don’t like the repeated mentions of her sister’s death.

“It should never rest,” she said. “As many lives as they have probably saved . . . this one particularly stands out. . . . . They did not save her when they could have.”

Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402