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Supervisors OK help for Strasburg squad

By Alex Bridges

WOODSTOCK -- The Strasburg Volunteer Rescue Squad can expect more help from Shenandoah County.

The Board of Supervisors voted 4-2 on Tuesday to grant the squad's request for two additional, paid rescue workers to take some of the pressure off the volunteer crews. The additional emergency medical services workers means increasing the staffing of the station to seven days a week, 24 hours per day. The county would try to hire the workers to begin Jan. 1.

Through a previous agreement reached in 2008, the county provided paid rescue workers to ensure that the station remains staffed five days a week, 24 hours per day. In return, the squad provides volunteers for the weekend shifts.

Squad representatives came to the board this summer with a request for more help because the same volunteers appeared to work certain shifts. Squad leaders said they feared the volunteers would burn out and possibly leave. The additional help from the county would allow the squad to focus on volunteerism during the week, representatives have noted.

County officials put the cost to hire two rescue personnel at $62,466 if they start Jan. 1, given the salary of $54,266 and the $8,200 for equipment and uniforms. Budget Manager Garland Miller indicated the county could use the $25,000 originally allocated for a department staffing study to cover part of the cost. The county also could use an estimated $10,000 in revenue from additional fees for ambulance transport by rescue workers on the weekends. These sources could cut the total cost in the current budget to $27,466.

Miller said the county includes contingencies in the fiscal budgets to cover unplanned costs that may arise. However, the impact on fiscal 2015 would increase to $108,532.

Supervisors David Ferguson and John "Dick" Neese voted against the motion to supply the squad with two more workers. Ferguson said the move continued a pattern by the county of filling stations piecemeal, rather than looking at the overall staffing needs for the volunteer crews.

Neese recommended that the stations in the northern part of the county -- Woodstock, Toms Brook and Strasburg -- should follow their counterparts in the south and consolidate the rescue squads and fire stations.

Chairman Conrad Helsley and Supervisors Steve Baker, Sharon Baroncelli and Dennis Morris supported the motion.

Before the vote, Ferguson noted that the board had in previous work sessions on the subject asked for more information on how the county would pay for the extra rescue workers and discussed the need to look at a plan for coverage of the northern part of the county.

Chief Gary Yew, of the Fire and Rescue Department, came to the board several years ago with a plan on how the county should supply paid staff at the volunteer stations, Ferguson recalled. The supervisor noted that at the time the board started to approve additional fire and rescue workers to individual stations as requested rather than follow Yew's plan.

"I really think now's the time to bring that back up and give it the attention that it needs to be given, versus just continuing on the way we've been doing," Ferguson said. "Not that Strasburg may not need help, but it doesn't seem to me that we're going about it as effectively as we should."

Morris said he agreed with Ferguson.

"I just don't think we can afford not to help Strasburg," Morris said. "It may take some time to get a plan together and I just don't want them to burn out during the interim."

The county recently applied to the Virginia Fire Services Board to conduct a study of coverage and staffing by the department. County Administrator Mary Beth Price noted that the study is underway, but she does not expect to see the results until February.

Baroncelli reminded the board that during past discussions over fiscal budgets Yew brought forward requests for more paid personnel to staff the stations. The board approved budgets that funded only part of Yew's requested numbers.

"You did bring that big picture to us and we elected to give him a third of what he needed, and now it finds us in this piecemeal fashion that we're doing what we can to do to catch up," Baroncelli said.

Ferguson asked whether or not the revenue collected by the county for ambulance service supports the additional paid staff in the coming year. Ferguson hinted that the county could look at the money it already gives to the volunteer stations as a way to offset the cost for paid staff.

"I'm just not sure we've taken a deep dive into those issues versus we're only addressing one issue, which is Strasburg EMS cannot provide any scheduled days of coverage so, therefore, we add two people," Ferguson said. "That's about as deep as we went and that's what you're going to vote on. That's not as deep as I wanted to go."

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com

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