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Posted March 14, 2012 | comments 10 Comments

Shenandoah County fire officials explain need to hire 13 firefighters, EMTs

Chief: Volunteers aren't meeting response-time goals

By Sally Voth -- svoth@nvdaily.com

WOODSTOCK -- Several county officials justified the need for additional paid firefighters during a Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday.

The fiscal 2013 budget as proposed by County Administrator Doug Walker includes the creation of 13 firefighter/emergency medical technician positions. That would require nearly $700,000 in a department that currently pays about $1.9 million for 32 full-time employees. There are six part-time staffers, too.

Shenandoah County Department of Fire and Rescue Chief Gary Yew said on Monday that his department had actually requested 22 more workers to help volunteer agencies in the county meet coverage gaps.

New Market Fire and Rescue, in particular, needs more manpower, with paid staff required to provide 24-hour coverage, Yew said.

More and more, fire and rescue volunteers aren't meeting response-time goals and failing calls, Yew has frequently told the Board of Supervisors.

District 3 Supervisor David Ferguson led the questioning of Yew on Tuesday. Ferguson said he already knew the answers.

He asked Yew if it was New Market Fire and Rescue's responsibility to supply its own personnel, to which Yew replied in the affirmative, but added the department was struggling.

"The volunteers just aren't there," Yew said.

"Can't we hold them accountable for that responsibility and not staff New Market, and let them be responsible for any loss of life or property?" Ferguson prompted.

Yew responded, "Absolutely not. We can't sacrifice that."

Ferguson asked why not.

"Lives are at stake, property is at stake," Yew said.

Ferguson said justification for the new hires being requested would have to be articulated because when that many people are added to a department, the public will perceive them as being unnecessary. He said residents won't have the knowledge or understanding of why more are needed.

"Some of the questions I asked you earlier were just leading questions to hear what you had to say," Ferguson said.

The Board of Supervisors is responsible for providing public safety to the county, he said.
For decades, volunteers have done a "tremendous job," Ferguson said. Now, they're looking to the county to fill the void, he said.

"It's quite clear, we're hearing from the public," District 4 Supervisor Sharon Baroncelli said.

"They don't think we need to hire more," the suprevisor said. "It's essential that you communicate that to these volunteer departments that that's what some of our citizens who don't understand the situation [perceive] ... We need to educate and communicate through the volunteer departments as well as through our meetings."

Yew said he understood the criticism the board members were hearing from residents, and said most people will never need fire or EMS services.

"But, I'm exposed to the ones daily that do, and have to answer to the ones that don't receive it in a timely manner, or don't receive it at all," Yew said.

10 Comments | Leave a comment

    Gary Yew, it's easy to understand WHY the volunteers cannot meet the demand. YOU DO NOT WANT THEM!!!! Why are we sending Fire and rescue on every single incident without cause. A slight fender bender gets a full scale response. It never had in the past, not until Yew came along and decided we are going to be another Loudoun County.

    We do not need to respond to every call in the same priority level. Most times a Deputy or State police is on the scene of an accident and they should be allowed to make a judgement call for responders.

    It's becoming ridiculous how many times a day fire and rescue are summons by YEW to respond needlessly.

    Just make the entire county paid...that's Yew's way.

    A few comments from an "old veteran" of the fire service, in hopes to bring the citizens of the County up to speed on how these process move. As stated numerous times in the past, volunteer firefighters used to work in the local community and their employers would release them when the local fire alarm would sound. Everyone now realizes that those days are basically over. These old tactics held true in even today’s larger communities such as Fairfax City, Herndon, Mclean, and Springfield. As the populations continued to rise thus bringing the incident totals up, that meant more and more time off from work for volunteer firefighters. An additional factor involved was that the local work force ventured further away from their local communities to work, therefore also making it harder to volunteer during daylight hours. OK, enough background.
    What all of this allows is for local communities to venture into the system known as combination departments. These are just as they sound part paid employees along with volunteer firefighters working side-by-side in a team effort. In theory, these departments should function well with a minimal resource drain on the local communities. In theory I say. If the Chief or Administrator of the Department is a strong figure, both within the County/City and the local departments this will work. (In the short run anyway, until the population increases significantly, i.e. Fairfax County) The former Chief of the City of Winchester was a prime example of a person who could and did make this type of system work for all.
    Now, as to the internal side of what really happens. Through no fault of their own, paid personnel are limited by the Fair Labor Standards Act / FLSA, as to just what they are allowed to participate in regarding internal station issues. This and the fact that the local fire departments supply the building, equipment, office furniture, etc… that the paid personnel use start to cause friction within the system. (Yes, I realize that Shenandoah County does provide some apparatus however; not all.) Additional issues also arise such as just who the local incident commander is. Is it to be controlled at the County level or is the local Chief from your department in charge. (Friction yes.) Who decides how incidents are dispatched? Does a “working structure fire” warrant a two engine company response along with a truck company? Since we are still a rural department, how many additional tankers are to be dispatched on the initial alarm? Response times, who decides how many minutes before a second due alarm is dispatched due to the first company not answering their call. All of these issues start to divide the well meaning persons both paid and volunteer, causing more friction.
    With all of this, the average volunteer starts to decide, why, why put up with the frustration and he/she start to remain at home more and more. This hurts manpower along with response times. At this point Mr. Yew starts making his requests for additional staff. (Where we are today.)
    What is next, will the County start to purchase apparatus? Will the County start the consolidation of local departments? Sure, Toms Brook will remain open as a volunteer station however; all of their paid staff may move to Strasburg, staffing both fire and rescue. Is this where we are headed? As an old firefighter who has seen an awful lot through the years, yes that is where we are headed. Within the next fifteen to twenty years, the County sees the majority of fire and rescue staffed by paid personnel. This is why you see stations responding from a myriad of jurisdictions on larger incidents. Apparatus will arrive with two or possible three persons, instead of the “old” days of six to eight.
    Yes, look to the east and north, as the population rises, our real estate taxes will raise as well. All of this to protect the public, which is truly required. Can it be stopped, probably not, only slowed down. Ladies and Gentlemen, the fox is already in the hen house.

      Old Salt, dead on the mark, sir! Unfortunatley you're the voice of reason. The reality is uncomfortable and as I've seen over the past decade staring everyone in the face. The forest is being missed because of all those pesky trees!!

    Old Salt, your post makes a lot of sense and I tend to agree with it, but there are two problems I see in our current situation. First, as you said, the Chief has to be a strong figure willing to make the mixed paid/volunteer system work. Yew is not. He has shown he has no interest in making the volunteer system work. But why should he, the more the volunteer system fails, the more power he has as the county relies on paid support more. In order for the system to work, the chief has to have an interest in what is best for the county, not what's best for his career.

    Second, it's true that as populations rise more support is needed. But the population hasn't risen in this county since the housing market crash and I sure don't see much construction going on to indicate that any boom is on the way. An increasing population would equate to more tax revenue which would pay for the expanded services. But in this case, there is no increasing population, therefore there is no increasing tax revenue and no need to expand services. We seem to have been getting along just fine for the last 5 years.

    It's all about dynasty building. Yew and Ferguson want to set back amongst his paid cohorts and say "Look at what I did". The sad part will be it was done with the destruction of a 200+ year old volunteer system, destruction of the character of Shenandoah County via raising taxes and short changing other governmental agencies by scaring the people and the BoS with fears of Armageddon if we don't keep hiring paid, union firefighters into an unsustainable system that requires the exponential hiring to support its retirees.

    I am writing in response to the March 13th article releasing plans to increase the Shenandoah County’s Fire and Rescue (SCFR) department by 13 personnel. In the article it states that it will require an 8 cent increase in real estate tax and then it further goes on to states by Chief Yew that “we’re not sure how we will deploy those folks” and “that he expects shortages will lead to more overtime pay”. As a county resident and taxpayer, this article and the proposed fire and rescue budget/plan (see Shenandoah County’s website) have me extremely concerned. Shenandoah County has always been known for their strong volunteer fire and rescue agencies, however, with the call volume rising and a decrease in volunteers, more career fire and rescue personnel are required. With that being said, I firmly believe that every effort should be taken to only assist the volunteer companies as needed and not take over any department or area. I believe current practices and future plans call for less reliance on volunteer agencies. In other words, fewer volunteers mean more career personnel which will only lead to more tax increases. Volunteers easily save this county tens of millions of dollars each year and cover more areas than SCFR can adequately cover even with three times the number of career personnel.
    In the article Chief Yew stated that certain companies wanted assistance with ambulance support and one company wanted assistance on their fire apparatus. If the SCFR department deploys these additional personnel to assist those companies as they currently do and plan to do, it will effectively hurt if not kill neighboring volunteer departments. For example, SCFR currently deploys an engine with two personnel on the south side of the county. This engine started out the same way- to aid a fire company that needed some extra assistance and if all the ambulances in the area were out the engine crew is supposed to get off the engine and take an ambulance to meet the needs of the citizens of Shenandoah County. However, in reality the engine that is supposed to help the company that requested it is routinely miles away from their “first due” in another department’s area and do not routinely get off the engine to get on an ambulance when needed to assist a medical call. If an engine is needed in another department’s area, that department’s fire apparatus should be dispatched.
    Other SCFR plans are to put four firefighters on an engine. That is four firefighters on the engine in the south side of the county and four firefighters on an engine in the North. I only know of two departments in the entire Commonwealth of Virginia that has four firefighters on an engine and those jurisdictions are some of the largest (by population and taxes) in the Commonwealth. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the agency that helps develop fire regulations, do not even call for four firefighters on an engine in an area the size of Shenandoah County. The NFPA has two regulations, 1710 and 1720. NFPA 1710 covers mainly career departments of at least 85% career staff and NFPA 1720 covers more rural areas, such as Shenandoah County. SCFR continues to try and combine the two and use bits and pieces out of both regulations; this is not how the NFPA designed both documents.
    I am not against these additional 13 personnel, I just believe there are more cost effective ways to provide coverage to the areas that need assistance and use the volunteers to their fullest. Some ideas include:
    Put a 24 hour Advanced Life support ambulance (not a pickup truck) in service to roam the county to fill any voids in EMS coverage. This Ambulance can also act as first responders to aid other ambulances on calls. Additional ambulances are needed somewhere in the county multiple times a day, this additional ambulance or two can fill a much needed void within the county.
    If a volunteer company requests support, the career personnel should respond as that company and not routinely roam out of their area as they currently do. This will ensure proper coverage of the area that requested support and neighboring volunteer departments that are currently doing what they are supposed to do are not affected. This allows for SCFR to assist the departments that need help while still relying on volunteer coverage.
    Most calls are for medical problems. These calls continue to increase every year and the number of ambulances seems to stay the same. It is not uncommon for an ambulance to travel three towns away to handle a call when that areas ambulance is out. This can easily happen 5-10 times a day. Put those additional people on ambulances where they are more needed (most volunteer rescue companies have more than one) and if they are needed on a fire, have them respond to the fire as they already do. If they need to drive a fire apparatus, have them cross trained.
    Shenandoah County has needed to complete the Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system for years. This will ensure that the correct companies are dispatched to emergency calls and also aid in decreasing the time frame when a caller calls 911 to the time dispatch actually notifies the fire or rescue agency. Chief Yew was stated in a March 14th column as stating that volunteers are not meeting their response times. But for years SCFR has gone by without a proper CAD system (even when we are paying for it) and it routinely takes 3-7 minutes before a company is even dispatched. The national standard, I believe, is 90 seconds. However, in the newspapers, only volunteers are being blamed for long response times. Some of this money can be used to fix the CAD system, so emergency agencies are notified in a timely matter, resulting in emergency personnel arriving on scene faster to meet the needs of the County.
    These are just a few quick ideas, I urge the board of supervisors to talk to the Shenandoah County Fire and rescue Association (the association of volunteers) and to each individual department to discuss how this will affect their departments BEFORE approval. This budget proposal and more importantly the current plan on how to use these additional personnel can have serious and negative consequences on volunteer agencies. There are ways to improve our resources even with these additional personnel that increase fire and rescue coverage to the county while still hanging on to the dedicated volunteers that have always protected this community, we owe it to everyone to explore every option to provide these invaluable emergency services while still remaining fiscally responsible.

    If the county administration fails to complete a comprehensive cash flop analysis of the new staffing levels before they make a final decisison they will be making a grave error. They need to know the effect of both the new and permenant expenditirues as well as the needed sources of revenue that will be required to fund these new and permanent expenses.

    There are thousands of examples across this country of well-meaning public sevants - both elected and appointed - who have increased expenses without understanding how and from where the money will come to pay for the new services.

    ...cash flow analysis...if they don't, it could very well turn into a flop.

    Question is why does Shenandaoh County want to add more burden on the taxpayers. Where myself and my family come from (Atlanta Ga.) the city/county staffs the fire units with paid personell and they contract out the ambulance services. In my understanding majority of the staff at Shenandoah County is staffed on a ambulance. If you take those personell and staff them on a fire apperatice and contract out a ambulance service it would require less payroll for Shenandoah County, in which, wont raise out taxes.

    If you need a recommendation (for a transport company) my father was transported by Valley Medical Transport from Shenandoah Memorial Hospital to WMC for a heart attack. As a prior EMT from Georgia himself he was really impressed with the care he received from them. Maybe Shenandoah needs to start the talks with them to provide EMS to Shenandoah County.

    It is time to save tax payers money. Not charge them for all the idiotic decisions the board of supervisors makes.

    Thanks to Supervisor David Ferguson for caring so much about New Market and its residents. It is not very good to know that you want to see loss of a life or property placed on the Town of New Market because we do not have enough volunteers. Why do we then have to pay county taxes if you do not care about us. We would all be much better off to be a part of ROCKINGHAM COUNTY!!!!

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