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Stafford fire and rescue crews often stretched to the limit

Emergency calls on one December day stretched Stafford County’s fire and rescue crews to the limit.

During a 45-minute period, medic units and fire engines responded from all corners of the county for various incidents—an ambulance from Hartwood, an engine from Falmouth, an ambulance from Potomac Hills and more.

To show county officials the extent of the calls, Fire Chief Mark Lockhart placed sticky notes on an oversized county map: Stations emptied of crews and equipment as time passed.

“We had zeroed out everything that was staffed and available in the county,” Lockhart told a Board of Supervisors committee earlier this week.

And the problem isn’t uncommon.

Having more staff could help alleviate the strain known as “status zero” that happens every three or four weeks, Lockhart explained. It could prevent the department—with its combined career and volunteer first responders—from going over the edge.

Stafford Sheriff Charles Jett and Lockhart hope the county will funnel $13 million into the county’s public safety departments over the next three to five years so they can hire more people to fill in gaps and allow for increased community policing time.

The idea behind the county-analyzed staffing plan, which was done last summer, is to address current and near-term demands, and find out what resources may be needed.

“I don’t think anyone is saying we’d do it all today or all at once,” County Administrator Anthony Romanello told the three-member public safety committee Wednesday. “We can scale parts of it.”

RESPONDING TO CALLS

Fire and rescue crews aim to respond to 90 percent of calls within eight minutes, a goal based on national standards. After eight minutes, emergency situations can deteriorate rapidly and outcomes can be tragic: brain death from cardiac arrest, flashovers for fires.

But meeting the goal has been a continuing challenge. In fact, that only happens for about half the county population. Around-the-clock staffing at each fire station could have crews responding to calls within eight minutes in 70 percent of cases, but would require hiring 72 additional firefighters, medics and support staff.

Instead of hiring that many more personnel, the fire and rescue department focused on three areas of concern where the greatest impact could be made.

“It will take another bite out of the elephant, if you will,” Lockhart said.

In December, countywide response time dropped to 68 percent, from 70 percent the month before.

Meeting the eight-minute goal is toughest in rural Widewater in North Stafford. That occurred only 15 percent of the time in December. Meanwhile, in Aquia, 79 percent of calls met the goal.

The monthly report shows that some stations had startlingly low staffing levels.

Ten units across the county are staffed 24/7 by career firefighters and medics.

“We won’t compromise on that,” Romanello told the committee, when asked about overtime costs. The committee’s members are supervisors Gary Snellings, Meg Bohmke and Laura Sellers.

The fire and rescue department has 116 staff members. Volunteers serve alongside career staff, and help fill in the staffing gaps, but there aren’t as many as there used to be.

About 100 to 150 volunteers run calls; even more volunteers are on the books but aren’t active.

“We have seen a decrease in the volunteer rank,” Lockhart said. “Nationally, folks are just busier now than they ever have been before, and they don’t have the time to volunteer for whatever activity” it may be.

The department needs help with the growing population and the corresponding higher call volume, Lockhart said. The county anticipates a 2 percent increase annually to the current 135,000 residents.

The study recommends hiring 52 personnel over the next several years, through fiscal 2017, at a total cost of about $4 million.

No additional stations are proposed until 2025.

Lockhart wants to place new career staff in three specific areas that are prone to lengthy responses: the northwest area of Stafford, the northeastern area around Potomac Hills, Boswells Corner and the Quantico Corporate Center, and the eastern Brooke area.

“This is in no way an attempt to force volunteers out,” Lockhart said. “We have a good working relationship.”

A fire training lieutenant and a host of other command, field and support staffing positions also are proposed.

‘RUNNING IN PLACE’

Sheriff Jett explained to the committee there are many formulas used to determine how many people are needed in the department, their roles and work shifts.

His department’s study doesn’t include future projections—it’s based on goals set for the past three years.

Jett wants officers to spend 30 percent of the time on proactive community policing. Now, that’s about 3 to 13 percent of their time, while the majority of time is spent responding to calls. Making this change calls for 77 hires, including deputies and staff.

Six school resource officers were hired through a grant this year. The greatest need is for additional patrol deputies, Jett explained.

“We’ve been running in place,” Jett said. “The board has done everything they can to support our office. What that’s allowed is for us to be able to maintain a level of service, while, not where it needs to be, it’s a level of service the community is satisfied with. They don’t see the things behind the scenes we do.”

Upping the department to 250 people would cost $9.3 million, phased over three to five years. First year costs would be about $2.1 million.

More staff could bring about improved response times, a positive impact on the crime rate and more community efforts, he said.

Jett says state support for Sheriff’s Offices is dwindling, and Stafford is owed 10 positions.

The starting salary for a deputy sheriff is $41,000. The hiring and training process takes several months.

Jett also wants to attain national accreditation, a seal of professionalism for his office.

http://www.freelancestar.com/2014-02-03/articles/28572/stafford-fire-and-rescue-crews-often-stretched-to-the-limit/

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