Hearings set on merger

A van drives past the Fortsmouth Volunteer Fire Department , which is located off Lower Valley Road near the Warren and Shenandoah County line. Warren County wants to close the Fortsmouth and Rivermont fire stations and build a new station. Rich Cooley/Daily

A three-year push to consolidate two Warren County volunteer fire stations appears to be entering its final stages with the approach of three public hearings scheduled within the next two months.

The consolidation is opposed by one of the fire stations, Fortsmouth company No. 8 at 53 Lower Valley Road. The other, Rivermont company No. 2 at 714 Rivermont Drive, is mostly in favor of it.

Warren County Fire Chief Richard E. Mabie has been the driving force behind the proposed consolidation, which calls for closing the Fortsmouth fire station and merging its remaining assets with the Rivermont station.

The consolidation plan also calls for replacing the aging Rivermont facility with a new fire station to be built at the intersection of Stokes Airport Road and Rivermont Drive.

The Rivermont station serves the Rivermont and Otterburn areas. Fortsmouth covers the Waterlick, Buckton and Lower Valley areas and a stretch of Va. 55 West leading toward Strasburg.

Mabie laid out his case for doing away with the Fortsmouth station in a March 3 memo to the Board of Supervisors. He cited its nearness to Shenandoah County, lagging volunteer numbers and response times ranging from sluggish to no response at all as major liabilities for the fire company.

Mabie wrote: “The station, due to its close relative proximity to the Strasburg (Volunteer Fire Department) does not add significantly to coverage of the county system as a whole. Fortsmouth is a fully volunteer staffed station. Fortsmouth currently has 16 volunteers of which five are deemed active. Unfortunately, out of five active volunteers, only one lives in the company’s first due area. The volunteers struggle to get out and when they do typically respond, it’s driver only. Their on time response rate for 2014 was 24 percent and non response rate was 47 percent with late (response) at 29 percent.”

In an interview Friday, Mabie said his consolidation plan is strictly a data-driven business decision.

“This isn’t anything personal against any of their members,” Mabie said of the Fortsmouth station. “We love them all, but the facts speak for themselves.”

Ben Hartsell, president of the Fortsmouth fire company, said his station is far from the only one struggling to find and retain enough volunteers to provide dependable service.

“Throughout the whole state, the volunteer system is lacking,” Hartsell said. “It’s that people don’t want to do anything for free anymore in my opinion or that people don’t have time.

“People are working outside the area, and they don’t get home until late in the evening.”

Hartsell said keeping a station on Lower Valley Road remains the best option for serving residents in the immediate area.

“That’s our main concern, the safety of the citizens of the Fortsmouth district that we can cover,” Hartsell said.

The Fortsmouth fire station, built in the 1970s, is in far better condition than the Rivermont station, much of which was built as early as 1954. The fire company had to build a new structure for a front wheel drive ambulance that was bought two years ago.

Kevin Wines, Rivermont’s fire chief, said he worries additional construction will be needed to house future equipment purchases.

“We’re just out of space, and if we don’t get a new building, we’re going to have to spend a considerable amount of money to make this functional,” Wines said.

Mabie said the Rivermont station’s floor joists are sagging on the second floor, and the building could soon become unsafe as it continues to deteriorate.

“The structure is too small for current needs,” Mabie wrote in his memo to the Board of Supervisors.

Wines said his support for the consolidation is based solely on meeting the needs of his fire station and should not be taken as a slap at Fortsmouth.

“The main point we want to get across is we want to do what is best for us,” Wines said. “I understand Fortsmouth is doing what’s best for them. I would not wish any fire department to be shut down, but you’ve got to look at all the factors.”

Mabie said closing the Fortsmouth fire station, the sale of its site and surplus equipment and the sale of Rivermont’s existing site could help offset the estimated $2.5 million to $3.5 million cost of a new station. Mabie argues that closing Fortsmouth would free up $65,000 now spent on its annual operating costs and make the money available for debt retirement on the new Rivermont station.

Both fire companies have scheduled public hearings in April on the consolidation.

Rivermont’s hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m. April 9 at the Rivermont Drive fire station. The Fortsmouth public hearing is set for 2 p.m. April 12 at the Lower Valley Road fire station.

The Board of Supervisors has scheduled a public hearing for May 19.

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