County lacks money for firefighter training academy

WOODSTOCK – The fate of Shenandoah County’s firefighter training program remains uncertain as officials look for money to pay instructors.

The Board of Supervisors last week heard from Chief Tim Williams, of the Department of Fire and Rescue, about the financial situation that leaves his agency without the funds needed to pay instructors. Williams informed the Shenandoah County Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association at its meeting in November that the department planned to cancel the Firefighter I and II academy for winter-spring 2017. The academy typically runs approximately six months beginning in January.

The association asked supervisors in a Dec. 23 letter signed by President Richard Hockman to restore the funds for the academy. Hockman states in the letter that the association relies on the training to prepare its members to serve as firefighters. Training also helps agencies recruit and retain volunteers.

“The need for Firefighter I & II classes is priceless,” Hockman stated in the letter. “Every successful organization is built on a strong foundation. Training is our ‘foundation.'”

The board and representatives of some volunteer departments in the audience last week discussed the matter. County Administrator Mary T. Price pointed out that Hockman did not attend the meeting and suggested that the board continue its discussion of the academy next month. Price earlier had noted that the department had roughly $1,400 remaining in its overtime budget as of last month and likely had already spent that money.

The association members at the December meeting voted in favor of forwarding a letter to the board and county officials asking that they consider restoring the funds as soon as possible in order to conduct the training.

“We, the Association, understand the struggles that county administration has in dealing with the annual budget,” the letter states. “We also understand the best and only way to provide a quality product to the citizens of Shenandoah County is to provide properly trained certified personnel to do the job.”

The county requires that applicants seeking jobs as paid emergency responders have the necessary training. Volunteer organizations use available training programs as a way to attract recruits.

County officials say the discussions related to the cancellation go back to actions taken under former chief Gary Yew. The fiscal 2017 budget included funding cuts to the department’s overtime allocation. The department looked at areas where it could reduce spending on overtime without adversely affecting services. The academy relies heavily on instruction performed by career staff. This, in turn, results in overtime pay. The department administration decided to forgo the academy this year, according to information provided by county officials.

Assistant County Administrator Evan Vass explained Friday that the department limited overtime spending linked to instructors who might incur overtime as a result of teaching the classes. The department did not cancel the academy but rather acknowledged that budget constraints would limit the amount of time and overtime money available to paid responders who teach the classes, Vass said, citing Williams’ information.

The Department of Fire and Rescue has offered a dozen Firefighter I and II programs since 2005. The department began teaching the programs in an academy format in 2008. The academy provides 303 hours of instruction in various areas of fire and rescue services.

It costs the county department roughly $20,000 on average in overtime pay to cover instructional expenses associated with the academy.

Attendance statistics showed that the number of county participants declined from 22 in 2010 to nine in 2016. The number of out-of-county participants has ranged from one to eight each year. However, the number of participants who did not complete the program ranges from three to 10. Annual attrition rates prompted the county department to impose a $200 registration fee in 2014 that covers textbooks, student manual, an academy T-shirt and sweatshirt.

Frederick, Warren and Rockingham counties also offer firefighter academies. Page County does not host a training program due to low enrollment numbers.

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