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Spotsylvania supervisors may ease training standards for volunteer firefighters

Spotsylvania County’s decision-makers appear to be headed toward compromise on the contentious issue of mandatory training for volunteer firefighters.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday is scheduled to decide whether to move forward with a plan that lays out exactly what training would be required of the volunteers. A formal policy would be approved no later than November.

Under the minimum training standards that were adopted after a fatal fire in 2010, basic firefighters have to complete some 400 hours of training to man a fire truck as part of a three-person crew. But supervisors last month voted to scrap the 2014 deadline for that training.

Since then, a leadership group of volunteer and career personnel has agreed on a new plan of action that doesn’t require as many training hours up front. Some volunteers have complained the original setup required too many classroom hours before recruits could gain practical experience.

The revised standards would allow volunteers to fill one of the three crew-member slots after finishing about 255½ hours of training. Those volunteers could work in dangerous environments only under direct supervision.

The other crew members—the driver and lead firefighter—would need to have even more education, according to the proposal.

Lead firefighters would need to have about 335½ hours of training, instead of the original 431½. That position could direct a crew in dangerous environments and perform the duties of an officer if needed.

The most training, about 415½ hours, would be required of the drivers. That’s 96 fewer hours than the county originally required of someone in that position.

Probationary firefighters, who must have about 36½ hours of training, could join crews but could not participate in life-endangering situations.

In addition, at least one firefighter on every crew would have to be a certified emergency medical responder or EMT—a designation that requires up to 160 additional hours of schooling, county spokeswoman Kathy Smith said.

A continuing education component will add even more hours, she said.

Smith wrote in an email that the standards were being “repackaged to make it more achievable for volunteers to get the training.”

The training schedule wouldn’t change for newly hired career firefighters, who must complete a 19-week recruit school. Smith noted that those firefighters “are more available for training as employees.”

Board of Supervisors Chairman Paul Trampe called the proposal “a step in the right direction.” “There are still challenges such as making sure that training classes are frequent enough,” he wrote in an email, “but this proposal would ensure that firefighters with the requisite training are on any engine which goes out while not requiring duplication where none is necessary.”

Billy Shelton, executive director of the Virginia Department of Fire Programs, said he thought the plan was an “equitable compromise” and hopes career and volunteer first-responders will embrace it.

“It’s not too drastic, and it’s not too conservative,” said Shelton, who reviewed the plan last week. “It’s right down the middle of the road.”

The state Department of Fire Programs recommended that Spotsylvania adopt an organized training program after the fatal house fire more than three years ago. Internal and external reports revealed numerous mistakes by the volunteers who responded.

Shelton characterized the original stricter standards as “maybe just a little too aggressive” and says the new proposal is comparable to required training at other similarly sized localities.

Still, many career firefighters, including outgoing Fire Chief Chris Eudailey, have maintained their support for the initial training standards despite pushback from some supervisors. Battalion Chief Jay Cullinan said at a meeting this summer that it would be difficult to supervise firefighters with various levels of training.

Cullinan, who is acting deputy fire chief, and Acting Fire Chief Scott Hechler were on the senior leadership group that agreed on the new plan. That group also included chiefs of Chancellor Volunteer Fire and Rescue, Spotsylvania Volunteer Fire Department and Spotsylvania Volunteer Rescue Squad.

Mark Kuechler, president of Spotsylvania Volunteer Fire Department, said the new proposal creates a “defined career path from entry-level to senior firefighter.”

He lauded Hechler for coming up with a “workable process that will help maintain our combined system.”

Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402