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Chief reacts to fire study

Yew says study got some things right, some not

By Alex Bridges

Shenandoah County's fire and rescue chief says a study of his department raised valid points in some areas but missed the mark in others.

The idea of the study came up last year as county leaders looked at staffing issues for the department and at volunteer stations. But the report, performed for free by the Virginia Fire Services Board, only briefly touches on staffing and a general remark about how many people fire and rescue services needed, Chief Gary Yew said Wednesday.

"That's one thing that we asked them to do and I noticed that it was somewhat absent in the report," Yew said.

Each year Yew asks the county for funds to hire additional firefighters while following a staffing plan created several years ago. The county doesn't always fulfill his entire request, but the fiscal 2015 budget does include funds, taken from the department's overtime allocation to hire four firefighters. These responders would fill in gaps created when other firefighters can't work. This approach helped the department keep its operational budget at current levels.

Yew said the study team didn't have much time to gather information from the department or volunteer groups.

"Short of this committee spending many weeks in a locality, that's something that's pretty tough for them to do just by being here two or three days."

The study focused on the department's organization, communications, training, budget and administration and delivery of services.

Yew, who sent a memorandum to county officials in March in response to the report, said the study team's recommendation that his department create a strategic plan should be a priority.

"I am somewhat disappointed in the fact that many of their recommendations in the plan have already been implemented to some degree and we continue to work on them," Yew states in the memo.

Those initiatives already underway by the department include succession planning, communications, tactical equality, training scheduling and structuring of its swift water rescue operations.

"Had the committee spent some time with the Association leadership and the [department] senior staff, I believe these efforts would have surfaced in the study," the memo states.

Yew pointed out that the report recommends the county work on improving its ratings by the Insurance Services Office -- a private entity that ranks the fire suppression abilities of communities. The firm uses a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the best ranking. He noted the county and incorporated communities have worked for some time to improve the ratings.

Yew said fire and rescue companies in Edinburg, New Market and Woodstock recently improved their ratings, which, he said, can mean lower insurance premiums for homeowners. Work to improve ratings takes not only the effort of the emergency responders but also the town governments to make sure municipal water systems are adequate for firefighting, and the county to maintain the communications center. Yew said providing additional paid firefighters at the stations has also helped improve ratings.

The report also recommends the department enhance its training program. The department has done this jointly with the volunteer companies for the past few years, Yew said. The association works with the department to schedule training sessions.

"Short of the response, [training] is probably the second-most important thing we do," Yew said. "People's lives and livelihood depend on competent people getting to them so training is definitely a priority for us."

The report does contain valuable insight for the county and emergency services, Yew said. The chief said he's already talked about it with Richard Hockman, president of the volunteer fire and rescue association. Yew said Hockman also sees value in the report, particularly the recommendations for the strategic plan, standardization of equipment and centralization of purchasing for fire and rescue services.

Yew said he hopes the county supervisors can discuss the report at a future work session.

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

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