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Fire services study open to public input

By Alex Bridges

A state study underway could give Shenandoah County a better idea of how to improve fire and rescue services.

The county recently applied to the Virginia Fire Services Board to study the delivery of fire and emergency medical services. As part of the work on the state-funded study the Virginia Department of Fire Programs sends a team to the county to collect information and to hold a "town hall" meeting on the subject for the public.

The town hall meeting on fire and emergency medical service delivery will be held at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 18 in the government center, 600 N. Main St., Woodstock.

Chief Gary Yew, of the county Department of Fire and Rescue, sought the study after the Board of Supervisors in the spring chose not to fund a request for additional, paid firefighters. The idea of the study also came up recently as the board approved a request to fund two additional responders that would boost staffing levels at the Strasburg Volunteer Rescue Squad.

"What we expect or hope to gain from the study is certainly look at anything out there that helps us further our mission," Yew said Friday.

The study likely would look beyond staffing levels to include training, public outreach and other aspects of emergency services, Yew added.

The recent decision by the supervisors to fund two rescue workers for the department comes up well short of Yew's ongoing effort to boost the number of paid firefighters in the county. Whether the new study would suggest that the county hire more rescue workers remains uncertain.

"I'm keeping an open mind on the recommendations," Yew said. "I really don't know what to expect ... We'll keep an open mind and hope that the county's in a position to implement recommendations that they come up with."

The new study would come years after the Virginia Department of Health conducted a similar assessment of the county's emergency services. The report issued in 2009 came with numerous recommendations for the county, some of which were pursued.

The county couldn't afford to fully fund Yew's staffing request he presented to supervisors in 2011. At that time, his staffing plan called for the county to hire 22 responders. Yew's department has had funds to hire eight responders since then and now plans to add two for Strasburg.

"I think anything that the study comes up with will certainly complement or parallel what our plan is and help us implement that," Yew said. "Perhaps we're off base. Maybe they'll come up with something else."

A team from the Virginia Department of Fire Programs plans to make a site visit to the county Nov. 17-19. The initial site visit usually includes the town hall meeting, said Mark Buff, marketing and communications manager for the department.

Jurisdictions submit requests to the Virginia Fire Services Board, a body appointed by the governor. The state department handles the administrative functions for the study, from scheduling the meetings to releasing the findings in a report.

The agency sends a self-assessment to the county ahead of the site visit. The assessment asks basic questions about the county's fire and rescue services, what it hopes to see from the study and other related issues.

The department then sends the team for the site visit. The team is composed of members of the Virginia Fire Services Board and usually a department division chief, an administrative liaison, a representative of the Department of Emergency Medical Services and an official from the Department of Forestry, Buff explained.

During the site visit, the team meets with the department to discuss fire and rescue services delivery. The town hall meeting allows residents to provide input to the team and ask questions about fire and rescue services. The team gathers the input and information gleaned from the meetings and the assessment.

The study looks at several categories such as organizational development, communications, personnel and staffing, training, budget and equipment.

"They kind of look, top to bottom, at how fire and EMS services delivery is being accomplished and look for ways the team, the fire services board, can offer recommendations as to changes, improvements the locality might want to consider," Buff said. "These are recommendations only. They are non-binding. We do not have any authority to dictate to the locality how to run their fire and emergency services. That is a local issue."

The process can take four to six months from the time the board receives the request for the study to the release of the report, Buff said.

"The goal is to ultimately improve things for that locality, both for the fire and EMS individuals who work in that line as well as the citizens in that locality," Buff added.

The board conducts several studies per year of this kind. In general, recommendations can address the complexion of a jurisdiction's paid and volunteer staff, organizational leadership and administrative structure. But Buff noted that each jurisdiction has different needs and the agency conducts studies on an individual basis.

"We kind of treat these things as going into each one of them with a blank slate, with no preconceived ideas as to what the findings may be and to look at them in a completely neutral, unbiased method and try to make the best recommendations possible to the locality," Buff added.

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

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