Panel hears public on fire, rescue services

By Alex Bridges

WOODSTOCK — A state agency studying Shenandoah County’s fire and rescue services heard from a handful of people Monday about challenges facing volunteers and possible incentives for the workers.

The Virginia Fire Services Board held a town hall meeting to collect public input as part of its study into the county’s fire and rescue delivery system. Members of the Board of Supervisors and county officials also attended the session.

Sonny Mongold, a life member of the New Market Volunteer Fire Company, commented on the number of hours required for certification as a responder. Mongold also had served as the emergency services coordinator for the county up until 2000. The position does not currently exist, he noted.

“I think schooling is a very important thing and I realize that we take people out of stations to send them to schools,” “Mongold said. “It’s time consuming and puts an extra burden on the other people.”

Volunteers must complete more than 200 hours of training. Mongold suggested that the public may not understand what it takes to become a volunteer.

Mark Capozzella said he would like to know how much it would cost the county to pay a firefighter or emergency medical services worker from date of hire to retirement.

A requirement that workers train in both firefighting and emergency medical services also challenges the system, Van Holmes told the panel. Holmes questioned whether the county could save money by hiring people trained in one field or the other and not require recruits to cross-train.

“It seems like we could staff it cheaper in those cases where we do have to do some staffing and we don’t exclude people that are not quite as physically fit,” Holmes said.

Holmes also suggested that the county should reimburse volunteers for their time, or at least to help cover the cost of gas to drive to emergencies.

Supervisor-elect Marsha Shruntz, citing a question posed by a constituent, asked about how fire and rescue agencies count calls for service compared to law enforcement.

After the town hall meeting, Chief Gary Yew, of the county’s Department of Fire and Rescue, noted the low attendance and number of speakers.

“It’s valuable for our department,” Yew said. “It’s valuable for the Board [of Supervisors] to hear, so we certainly would have valued a lot more participation.”

Issues raised by speakers were not new, Yew said.

“The hours of training it takes for volunteers is certainly cumbersome,” Yew said. “We know that. A lot of it can’t be helped. It’s mandated but we realize it’s a burden.”

The county can help the situation by holding the training classes locally so volunteers don’t have to travel, Yew noted. Financial incentives for volunteers would require funds the county currently does not have, but the idea has been discussed, Yew said.

Mongold said after the meeting that the county would eventually have to go to a system made up mostly of paid fire and rescue workers.

Yew said he doesn’t expect that to happen in the near future.

“There are some volunteer challenges in the county but we still have a strong core of volunteers, a strong core of good volunteers,” Yew said.

Prior to the input session, Michael Berg explained the study process. Berg works as the manager of regulations and compliance for the Office of Emergency Medical Services through the Virginia Department of Health. Berg also serves as the team leader for the fire and emergency medical services study underway by the Virginia Fire Services Board and the Department of Fire Programs.

“It is not a debate,” Berg explained. “…It is an opportunity for us to gather information from you, the people who live in this community, what you think is working, is not working or what could work better for the delivery of fire and emergency medical services in your community.”

Under state code, the Virginia Fire Services Board can conduct a feasibility study to look at the county’s emergency response delivery, any challenges or issues it faces and how it may improve, Berg said.

The team receives a significant amount of information prior to conducting the study, Berg explained. As part of the study, the team comes to the jurisdiction and visits each of the fire and rescue agencies. Members talk to local government and elected officials to hear their perspective and thoughts on the issues facing fire and rescue services. The team planned to visit the rest of the county’s volunteer fire and rescue stations today.

The panel then will take the information gathered from the visit to the county and the town hall meeting and put together a draft report the team will review. The team will create a final draft report and send the document to the county administrator for her to review the accuracy of the technical information in the document.

The report then goes to the Fire Services Board for approval. At that point the report becomes a public document and the team schedules a meeting to present the findings to the Board of Supervisors. The report also will be distributed to all agencies that the team has been involved with in the study.

“It is up to your Board of Supervisors as to whether they accept that report, and if they do accept that report whether they embrace some of it, all of it or none of it,” Berg said. “The report itself is not a legally binding document. It simply is an observation of information that we’ve collected through documents provided, through face-to-face interviews and other information that’s been gathered.”

The state agency may likely release the report by the end of December, Berg said.

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