PROGRESS 2014: Public safety officials move ahead on old, new challenges

By Joe Beck

Chief Richard E. Mabie of the Warren County Fire and Rescue Services spent a lot of time in 2013 trying to resurrect the defunct the Shenandoah Farms Volunteer Fire Department. Despite some improvements, the fire station on Howellsville Road remains far from where he would like it to be.

Financial and personnel scandals led the county to dissolve the previous fire company in court in August and replace it with paid career professionals. The career staff was supposed to be a stopgap measure that would operate the station until a new volunteer staff recruited from the surrounding area took over in a short period of time.

But Mabie found himself swimming against a regional and national tide of volunteer shortages on fire and ambulance crew. The county has managed to recruit 16 volunteers in the last several months for the fire company, but Mabie is a long way from declaring the problem at Shenandoah Farms solved.

None of the volunteers is available on weekdays. As a result, the career staff must remain on duty Mondays through Friday until some volunteers can be found to fill the shifts on those days. Mabie sounded doubtful he could recruit enough people for daytime weekday assignments.

“I’m going right now with the premise we’re going to have career staff out there covering the daytime hours,” Mabie said. “We’ll leave it to career staff. With the nationwide problems and recruiting and retaining, I’m not so sure we’ll ever eliminate the career supplement at the station.”

Mabie said the community response in filling the positions has been lacking.

“It’s a work in progress,” Mabie said. “On the disappointing side, we haven’t picked up a lot of support from the community. Most of the volunteers we have are people associated with that company in the past. We reviewed their applications and decided to take them back.”

Mabie said the other volunteers come from elsewhere in the county.

Of the 16 volunteers, 11 came with fire department experience and training, and the others are in training, Mabie said.

Mabie described the 4,000 calls answered by his department last year as “fairly busy” but the number of fire calls was down.

The department added two new ambulances, one at the fire station on Remount Road and the other at the North Warren fire station that serves the industrial corridor along U.S. 340/522.

The North Warren station also acquired a new replacement ladder truck.

“That’s the area of the county that commercial-wise and industrial-wise, it’s still growing,” Mabie said. “It was very important for us to replace that truck out there.”

Strasburg Police Department

Chief Tim Sutherly said 2013 tested the department with a town budget that limited expenditures for new personnel and equipment.

“It does become difficult when you have so many budget constraints,” Sutherly said.

As a result, the department has concentrated on trying to take advantage of new training opportunities or partnerships with other law enforcement agencies.

Sutherly cited a focus on in-house training “and anything free” at the satellite campus of the Rappahannock Regional Criminal Justice Academy in Middletown.

Sutherly said the department outfitted squad cars with laptop computers that allow officers to write reports and check for criminal records and other sensitive information without contacting dispatch or returning to the office.

“They can take care of that themselves without burdening dispatch and putting out information we don’t want over the airwaves,” Sutherly said of patrol officers and the data stored on laptops.

Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office

Forfeiture money acquired through the seizure of private property linked to crimes such as drug dealing went a long way toward paying for some important initiatives launched by the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office in 2013.

The funds, obtained through several pools of forfeiture money, means most of the expenditures will be supported by sources other than taxpayers.

The new initiatives include an expansion in the number of school resource officers. Each public school in the county will now have a resource officer in the building. Most of them will be county officers, although one at Strasburg High School will continue the town’s previous commitment to providing its own officer at that school.

The Sheriff’s Office has assigned four resource officers to the south end of the county, three to the central campus and two to the northern campus.

Maj. Scott Proctor said a community meeting on school safety showed “overwhelming support for a school resource officer in every school,” an idea the Sheriff’s Office was already favoring.

“In a nutshell, we were trying to head in that direction anyway,” Proctor said.

Proctor said 80 percent of the money for the additional resource officers will come from the forfeiture funds in the first year, although eventually the positions will be fully funded by the county.

“We’ve heard nothing but positive comments from the public and the school system Proctor said of the deployment of the resource officers.

Forfeiture money is also being used to pay for a bloodhound that will soon be available for tracking assignments.

Sheriff’s Office leaders said they have seen an increase in criminal and search and rescue cases requiring the use of tracking dogs. They cited the recent drowning of a child and a search for a suspect in the murder of Phyllis Kline near Edinburg in June as cases where trained tracking dogs borrowed from other agencies proved their usefulness.

“It’s a good investigative tool and also a good search and rescue tool,” Proctor said of the tracking dog.

Woodstock Police Department

Woodstock Police Chief Eric Reiley is looking forward to equipping each of his department’s squad cars with the same kind of laptop computer technology used in Strasburg last year.

The money for the laptops is the product of an out of court settlement reached between former Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli and Abbott Laboratories in a Medicaid fraud lawsuit. The police department was one of the police agencies awarded a grant from the fund created by the lawsuit settlement.

“That’s a huge acquisition for us at no cost to the taxpayer,” Reiley said.

Another planned acquisition will outfit officers with external ballistic vests intended to stop bullets. The vests will be worn outside the uniform instead of underneath.

Reiley said the external vests will be easier to wear in summer heat and also place less strain on the back of the wearer.

“It’s much more comfortable and takes weight off the waist,” Reiley said of the external vests.

Front Royal Police Department

Front Royal Police Chief Norman Shiflett welcomed the new year with a move from the department’s former headquarters on West Main Street to 23 E. Jackson St., the former home of the Warren County Sheriff’s Office.

“The transition has been positive, and with the help of our employees, we have settled in nicely,” Shiflett said in an email message. “This facility is much better than the recent building. There is more room for the various functions, and the configuration of this building is better suited for the numerous duties that needed to be attended to.”

The establishment of a master police officer program aimed at improving retention rates in the department by increasing opportunities for advancement is having the desired effect, Shiflett said.

“More officers are taking part,” Shiflett said. “Most officers are participating in in-house training sessions, the knowledge base of the officers is improving and retention issues are improving.”

In a personnel change since Jan. 1, Shiflett promoted Sgt. Jason Ryman to captain. Ryman replaces the retired Clint Keller as supervisor of the patrol division.

Detective Crystal Cline was recently chosen officer of the year by her fellow department employees. She is the first woman to receive the award given for efforts and initiatives that surpass expectations.

Warren County Sheriff’s Office

Sheriff Daniel McEathron called the Warren County Public Safety Building’s first full year of operation “a huge benefit to my office in as much as it provides the necessary office space and specialized areas that get used regularly by my deputies, other law enforcement, fire and rescue personnel and the community.”

In an email message, McEathron also said the building has proved to be “an excellent work environment” for the department’s different divisions.

McEathron said the department has completed purchasing mobile in-car cameras, and he expects to have them installed by early spring.

“Of course, the visual images captured during traffic stops and or arrests is very important as an evidentiary piece or investigations tool, not to mention an improvement in officer safety,” McEathron said.

The sheriff said he expects a continuing focus in 2014 on the exploding heroin problem plaguing the Northern Shenandoah Valley. The department’s membership in the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force will remain a cornerstone of heroin-related investigations and arrests, McEathron said.

Shenandoah County Department of Fire and Rescue

Chief Gary Yew called the opening of the Shenandoah County Emergency Communications Center in September a great boost for his department.

The center, designed to allow a coordinated logistical response to hazardous weather and other emergencies, proved its worth in late September when a missing 2-year-old boy was located after several hours with the help of a variety of private individuals government agency employees.

Yew said the center, which was paid for with a $50,000 grant, is also used almost weekly as a training facility.

“It’s worked extremely well,” Yew said of the center.

A pair of life saving devices purchased in 2013 that perform automatic chest compassions on heart attack victims has been “very successful,” Yew said. He added that he hoped to purchase a third chest compression device with grant money this year.

Yew said the recent arrival of two new paid career staff members at the Strasburg Volunteer Rescue Squad has allowed it to expand its operations from 24 hours, five days a week to 24 hours, seven days a week.

An effort to recruit more volunteers with the help of a federal program is showing mixed success so far, Yew said. Shenandoah County was one of only 14 departments in the state chosen to participate in the program, which is designed to help local fire and rescue departments target their recruiting efforts among segments of the population most likely to join.

“We’ve had some limited success with that,” Yew said, adding some fire and rescue companies have seen an increase in volunteers but others continue to lag.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com