Documents released by authorities explain dissolution of group
By Sally Voth -- firstname.lastname@example.org
STRASBURG -- A pattern of unprofessional and incompetent performance combined with a lack of volunteers to consistently run calls led the push to shut down the Strasburg Volunteer Rescue Squad, according to documents released by the Shenandoah County administration.
The Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors dissolved the squad April 14. While the squad fights that action, paid staffers from the Shenandoah County Department of Fire and Rescue are running emergency calls in the coverage area, which they've been doing for nearly two years.
Hundreds of pages of plans and correspondence were released by the county government following a Virginia Freedom of Information Act request by The Northern Virginia Daily.
"Personally I think this agency is finished," Shenandoah County Department of Fire and Rescue Chief Gary Yew wrote in an Oct. 16 e-mail to County Administrator Vince Poling and Supervisors Dennis Morris and Conrad Helsley.
He was responding to rescue Chief John Nixon, informing him the squad likely wouldn't be able to come up with a shift-coverage plan.
"There is also an obvious wall between operations and administration," Yew's e-mail says. "This organization has been without those that can serve as mentors, coaches and leaders so long that many members have forgot their purpose and lost their desire."
Yew reiterated his feelings in a Feb. 4 e-mail to colleagues, county administrators, several members of the Board of Supervisors, Strasburg Councilman Carlyle Swafford and Shenandoah County Fire and Rescue Association President Dale Fogle.
"The County needs to assume management of EMS delivery to the Strasburg district," the e-mail says.
His e-mail was in response to a schedule submitted by Nixon showing volunteers could cover 10 hours the week of Feb. 2.
"This is not acceptable ... we are paying for 40 plus active members and we are getting a 10 hour commitment," it says.
And, the e-mail says, when there are volunteers available, their officers aren't providing supervision -- "they simply do what they want."
By not following county or state protocols, the volunteers were "causing huge liability issues for the County," Yew's e-mail says.
It says the county takeover needed to happen "with the cooperation of all stakeholders."
About two years ago, operational medical director Dr. Lee Harvey threatened to step down from his position if the squad failed to address its issues within 60 days. He contacted Heather Phillips with the Virginia Office of Emergency Medical Services, who in an e-mail from August 2007 says a compliance case was opened regarding the squad's response times.
Numerous e-mails and memos from paid firefighter/EMTs working in Strasburg document incidents of unprofessional and discourteous behavior they say was exhibited by members of the rescue squad.
The complaints range from an unwillingness of volunteers to respond to calls, to improper equipment, to incompetent patient care.
Without seeing the documents containing the complaints, Nixon said in a Friday afternoon phone interview that he couldn't address specific issues, and that personnel matters were confidential. He said Shenandoah County has no "regulatory authority" when it comes to the squad.
"There have been a small number of operational issues brought to our attention by the county over the past year," Nixon said. "Those matters were immediately addressed according to our policies and either corrected or found to have no factual merit. We have had numerous operational complaints regarding the county, and some were forwarded to them to address. However in those cases, we chose not to be nitpicky and childish in pointing fingers [if] somebody made a mistake or did something we did not like."
In November, firefighter-EMT Joseph Hickey wrote a memo to Shenandoah County Operations Chief Tim Williams saying a person with chest pain was placed in a Strasburg ambulance, which had out-of-date warm packs and only one full oxygen tank on board. Hickey's memo says the volunteer did an "unsatisfactory" job of taking vital information from the patient, and paid staff took over.
Additionally, it says, the ambulance went through intersections with no siren on.
In another incident, three Strasburg rescue vehicles responded to a crash scene for one person with an arm injury, Hickey writes. He said the volunteers had to be told by a firefighter how to put the patient on a backboard, and by Hickey how to splint the arm. When returning to Strasburg, the county unit was nearly hit by a squad unit, he writes.
"The unit never slowed or yielded to on coming traffic," Hickey's letter says. "The unit was en route to standby at the high school football game."
In a Nov. 11 e-mail to Williams, Richard Funkhouser refers to the rescue squad as "the [Co.] 25 follies."
It says county staff responded to a person with breathing trouble at a local nursing home, and were joined by volunteers nine minutes after the call was dispatched.
"Here [comes] the follies part -- this was their meeting night," the e-mail says. "They had a building full of people."
Funkhouser's e-mail adds that two Frederick County firefighters told him several volunteers were disparaging the Shenandoah County Department of Fire and Rescue and the county government at Middletown Fire Department.
"In his exact words they were both screwing Co. 25," the e-mail says.
In an Oct. 31, 2007, e-mail to Williams, Hickey writes that he and Matt Nugent were asleep when a call came in after midnight.
As the paid staffers left on the call, they saw two volunteers who had been at the squad all night standing in the parking lot, who didn't go on the call, the e-mail says. The volunteers were still there when Hickey and Nugent returned.
"We were shocked (not really) to see the two volunteers scurry out of the parking lot with not so much as a wave, when we returned in quarters at 1:35 am.," Hickey's e-mail says. "Just an FYI, looking forward to the days when we don't have to deal with this mess!"
Frederick County Fire and Rescue Department Director Gary DuBrueler sent Yew a letter in July 2007 regarding Middletown's frequent mutual aid responses to Strasburg. The letter says that Frederick County crews responded to more than 600 incidents in Shenandoah County in 2006.
Harvey sent Williams an e-mail in April 2006 saying the two "MUST" meet with the rescue squad members and a couple of their officers regarding a "no transport call" a couple days earlier. It involved an infant with "tongue trauma" who "ultimately" was taken to the emergency room in a personal vehicle, and immediately flown to a pediatric intensive care unit at a Northern Virginia Hospital.
Excerpts from documents pertaining to rescue squad
Career staff communicated complaints and frustrations regarding their volunteer colleagues in the Strasburg Volunteer Rescue Squad.
Among the allegations:
* Volunteers in personal vehicles were photographing and videotaping career staff at a fire scene.
* A Middletown Fire and Rescue medic told paid firefighter-EMT Billy Cook that a Strasburg volunteer who had arrived at a medical call did nothing for the patient in the seven minutes before the Middletown medic arrived.
* Volunteers were directing traffic at a car crash rather than assisting a patient.
"I find it unacceptable that the first arriving EMS unit chooses [to] complete a task, non related to their purpose (traffic control) rather than assess multiple patients on the scene," firefighter-EMT Joseph Hickey wrote in a memo to county Operations Chief Tim Williams.
* In a Nov. 11 e-mail to Williams, Richard Funkhouser refers to the rescue squad as "the [Co.] 25 follies."
His e-mail says a crew showed up to a call with lights and sirens, only to tell the paid staff "they could not transport because they did not have time they just wanted to see what was going on."
"Co. 25 only has crew on Friday night if there is a home football game," the e-mail says.
Funkhouser adds that one volunteer always wears "holey" cut-off shirts on calls; that two volunteer units went to Food Lion with lights and sirens on to assist someone who locked his keys in his car; and that volunteers had a medic from Middletown join them en route to the hospital to help with a patient who may have dislocated his elbow.
"If Co. 25 does not feel comfortable they will call Middletown medic to ride with them," the e-mail says. "This happens all the time and most of the time it is a [basic life support] call."
* An EMT-paramedic from Frederick County sent an e-mail to Williams last November concerned that a Strasburg ambulance crew that picked him up at the I-81 Middletown exit was transporting a patient who had overdosed in Woodstock to Winchester Medical Center.
"I write this because I'm concerned that a hospital was bypassed for an inappropriate reason," Perry McAlister wrote. "I feel that if the BLS providers felt the need to call for an ALS provider, and if they felt that driving at midnight with lights and sirens, that they should have been transporting to the nearest facility. The patient was picked up in Woodstock and it was nearly one hour between the BLS units arriving on scene and arriving at WMC."
* Hickey e-mailed Williams in September 2007 that before he could dress and get into his gear for a night call, volunteers had left with the unit reserved by the career staff, and thrown his turn-out gear on the ground. His helmet was also missing.
-- Source: Documents acquired from Shenandoah County through a FOIA request