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Posted March 5, 2014 | comments Leave a comment

County fire chief seeks more responders

By Alex Bridges

WOODSTOCK -- Shenandoah County's fire chief may not get the extra responders he has requested for next year.

Chief Gary Yew made his case Tuesday before county supervisors who are working on a proposed spending plan for fiscal 2015 that currently shows the county facing a $1.8 million.

Yew requested funding he would need to hire nine more responders trained both as firefighters and emergency medical technicians. The chief requested $3.95 million in his budget to cover personnel costs.

"I'll be the first to admit our proposed budget is very aggressive," Yew said. "The county administrator made some drastic cuts and I understand why. I don't take issue with any of that."

County Administrator Mary T. Price has recommended in her proposed budget that the department receive $3.15 million for personnel. The current budget provides $3.02 million to his department for personnel.

At the meeting, Yew presented a plan that he said shows how the department could increase the number of emergency responders while not affecting the administrator's proposed budget. Yew's plan calls for the department to take some of the money allocated to cover overtime pay and use it to hire more responders. Yew explained the department employs 38 people to fill 38 seats on their vehicles. The department must either pay overtime to the employee called back to fill in for an absent responder or use a part-time worker, Yew said. The department can lower its overtime spending by using the some of the money set aside for that purpose and hire four full-time responders.

Yew's priorities call for hiring five responders at a cost of $296,712 to cover the Orkney Springs Volunteer Fire Department; seven positions at $411,390 to handle increasing calls for the South Battalion Engine Company; five for the North Battalion Daylight Engine Company.

The department budget request includes more than $534,000 for overtime pay. Yew's proposal comes after Price had made her recommendations based on his original request. Price asked Yew to develop a plan to help reduce overtime costs. The department looked at two options -- one that deals with the issue and holiday pay, the other by creating four full-time positions that would make up a relief pool of responders for fill-in purposes.

But the department also faces the growing problem of burnout. Responders work 24-hour shifts.

"It's not unusual for a lot of people to leave a 24-hour assignment, drive right to another station and work an additional 10 hours, and we shouldn't be doing that," Yew said. "We're killing our folks."

District 4 Supervisor Cindy Bailey asked why the department couldn't switch to 12-hour shifts. Operations Chief Tim Williams said the department likely would lose people if it switched its shift configuration. Responders work 24-hour shifts and, within the 48 hours spread across two days, they account for eight hours of sleep to bring down the hours to 40 for a week. To come up with a similar scenario with 12-hour shifts "would be a nightmare" and the department would need to compensate responders for the other eight hours, Williams said.

Bailey also asked about training time and the fact that the department requires responders to train in both firefighting and as emergency medical technicians. Williams said the extra time needed to train in both areas does not affect the department financially.

"I think your best bang for the buck is the combination," Williams said. "That's pretty much become the industry standard."

But Bailey clarified her question, asking if the county's requirement that personnel train in both areas rather that one takes responders off the street and prompts the need for the department to pay overtime to other workers. Bailey asked how much of the overtime hours came as a result of responders training for both. Williams said that the department fills in for people scheduled to work a shift but need to attend training.

Vice Chairman Conrad Helsley questioned how the second option -- creating four fill-in positions -- would cut down on burnout. Williams admitted that the hours the responders work would not change. Williams said the overtime causes the burnout.

"We're trying to fill all these holes in our schedule," Williams said.

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

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