County fire chief seeks more paid responders

WOODSTOCK – Shenandoah County fire officials say a volunteer department needs paid responders next year. But the request remains unfunded in the proposed fiscal 2016 budget.

Chief Gary Yew, of the Department of Fire and Rescue, asked for $2.43 million in the next budget for full-time salaries — an increase of $366,313 over the current cycle’s amount. County Administrator Mary Beth Price proposes an increase of only $31,246.

Yew made a pitch to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to fund his request for $470,160 he would use to hire eight firefighters. The department would assign the firefighters to work out of Orkney Springs Fire and Rescue in Basye and provide 24-hour coverage to the station’s district of 46.7 square miles.

Members of Orkney Springs Fire and Rescue as well as the Conicville Volunteer Fire Department near Mount Jackson also pitched for assistance. Yew said both companies have had a standing request for paid firefighters since 2011 that the county has yet to fully grant. The chief did not include Conicville in his budget request.

“But what happens at Orkney has a huge impact on what takes place at Conicville,” Yew said. “Both of them are very isolated from the [U.S.] Route 11 corridor. They depend on each other a lot and work together extremely close.”

The board did grant enough money in the 2013 budget for firefighters to provide daylight coverage that is shared between the two districts and has helped the situation, Yew said.

“We’re still a long ways from where we need to be,” Yew said.

The number of calls the companies fail to respond to as the first-due agency remains high, Yew said. The companies failed to respond to about 70 calls each last year, said Conicville Capt. Cody Ross. Failed calls were answered by other agencies. Ross recalled a morning recently when Conicville failed to respond to three calls in a two-hour span.

Tarinda Mumaw, a lieutenant with Conicville, noted that the company missed calls during the time period in the morning when most volunteers are driving out of the area to work and the station lacks paid staff to respond.

Shifting some paid responders from one area to another would still leave a void, officials said.

“We will take whatever help we can get but we know it’s a Band-Aid and that’s why we’ve joined with Orkney to ask for someone at our station, too, because what we have right now is not enough and we’re looking at 40-minute response times and we’re dealing with life and death, literally,” Mumaw said. “If there’s priority patients, we’re going to kill those patients because there’s no way we’re going to get to them in time so we’re here to formally ask for 24-hour coverage.

“We will take whatever the board will give us, whatever Chief Yew feels appropriate to put in our station or put in our area, we’ll greatly appreciate,” Mumaw added.

Supervisor Steve Baker, whose district includes the areas covered by the companies, pointed out the need to provide coverage for the county’s western corridor.

“I would hope that we could work something out to at least get some additional help,” Baker said.

Gerald Hawkins, treasurer with the Shenandoah County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, spoke to the board about the dwindling number of volunteers for the various companies. Hawkins pointed out that the Orkney Springs and Conicville districts lack large employers to provide jobs to people in the area who might volunteer with the companies.

Yew requested a total budget of $4.2 million in fiscal 2016 — an increase of $698,403 from the current period. Price proposes a total department budget of $3.59 million.

Yew also requested $150,000 to help Frederick County supplement the annual salary cost to provide paid firefighters at the station in Star Tannery. The chief’s budget request also includes $26,123 for a volunteer recruitment/retention coordinator. Such a position helps jurisdictions attract and keep volunteer fire and emergency medical services personnel, Yew said.

Price also proposes decreasing the county’s funding to the volunteer fire departments from $765,551 to $745,551. Volunteer organizations requested $876,291 in next year’s budget.

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