Jeff Branscome writes about Spotsylvania County.
Expanded Fire and Rescue Coverage
On Monday, Oct. 24, Spotsylvania Deputy Fire Chief Monty Willaford sent an email to the county’s career firefighters asking if any would be available to work overtime on weekends. In August, the county had tried to boost fire and rescue coverage by putting career firefighters in some stations on weeknights. But fire and rescue leaders soon learned that they would need career firefighters on weekends, too.
Officials had hoped that this would take some pressure off the volunteer agencies and help them to corral their volunteers into weekend hours. But two months later, four stations were still empty on many weekends. The county’s Fire Rescue and Emergency Services leaders were preparing to bring a plan to the Board of Supervisors on Nov. 10. Supervisors had asked for an estimate on the cost of staffing the county’s 10 stations round-the-clock.
But nearly two weeks before the meeting, a Fawn Lake house caught fire. The nearest firehouse was just 2 miles away. But there were no firefighters in the Wilderness station on Orange Plank Road. And so it took 18 minutes before first responders arrived.
Coincidentally, that was the same time it took for firefighters to arrive at a fire in 2003. That fire sparked the Spotsylvania Coalition for 24/7 Coverage, a group which raised $15,000 for Chancellor Volunteer Fire and Rescue, donated appliances, cooked meals and petitioned supervisors for more firefighters.
Fawn Lake residents–and others in the county–seemed discouraged that in eight years, little had seemed to change in the realm of fire and rescue.
But county leaders were determined to show that changes have been made–especially in the 19 months since a fatal fire led to an outbreak of complaints about the county’s fire and rescue system. That system is a combination of career and volunteer responders. Until this summer, career manned the stations weekdays and volunteers were charged with staffing stations on nights and weekends. But some stations often sat empty. Residents complained.
Volunteer agencies replied that they didn’t have enough volunteers. It’s a nationwide problem, with agencies across the country struggling to retain and recruit volunteers in a system with a lot of demands. Fire and rescue work requires a lot of time and is often performed in bad conditions. In a commuting community like Spotsylvania, it’s even harder to recruit volunteers. And some volunteer leaders said that it became even harder after several stories “tarnished the volunteers’ reputation.”
Volunteer agencies recently asked for $36,000 to recruit more members. The money would go towards branding and advertising, among other things. Supervisors were hesitant to approve the request. Part of their reluctance came from the fact that the county is in the middle of a recruiting study funded by a state group of fire chiefs. That Everyday Heroes campaign is studying 20 Virginia fire departments–half using traditional methods like mailers and ads and half using geographic information systems. Spotsylvania is one of the GIS departments, and Fire Chief Chris Eudailey worried that spending so much on traditional recruiting techniques would skew the study results for the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association.
Still, County Administrator Doug Barnes said that Spotsylvania is committed to staffing its fire stations.
“Everyone deserves a minimum standard of staffing,” he said.
For now, the county is working on getting crews into stations that do not have 24/7 staffing, he said.
“Hopefully, we’re getting our arms around the situation,” Barnes said.
The county will use the $124,000 the board already approved to boost coverage. This will pay for the overtime needed to staff four stations on weekends for the near future.
“That won’t be enough to do it forever,” Barnes said. “We’re looking at more options.”
Some of those options will come to the board on Nov. 10.
Barnes also wanted to emphasize that this isn’t a move to get rid of volunteers. He hopes that volunteer crews will join career crews on evenings and weekends and make sure the county isn’t just covered but covered fully.
“I don’t think this does anything to minimize the fact that we are a combination system,” Barnes said.
The next step, he said, is “a very candid discussion” with the board on how to move forward–and an equally honest discussion with volunteers on just what they’re capable of providing.
Knowing what the board and the volunteers are each willing to commit, the county can then determine the best way to allocate resources, Barnes said.
“Every decision we’ve made has been a progressive act,” he said.