Outgoing chief reflects on work with county

Gary Yew

WOODSTOCK — After 15 years of service, Gary Yew is retiring as chief of Shenandoah County Fire and Rescue. The Woodstock native’s 33-year career in fire as volunteer firefighter and eventually chief will come to an end today. He is taking on a new position as an emergency preparedness and safety coordinator for a company that contracts with Valley Health.

Yew praised his colleagues, saying the relationships he built during his tenure will be among the things he will miss most.

“This week especially has been pretty emotional for me,” Yew said. “I’m leaving such an absolutely fantastic staff. The staff here is so focused on the mission and our core values. Quite frankly, I’ve never worked some place where I’ve seen that kind of dedication before. I’m so proud of that. It’s the type of staff that needs little direction from me. They’re creative. They’re hardworking. They’re dedicated to what they do and they get the job done. Leaving those type of people is emotional for me.”

When Yew arrived at Shenandoah County Fire and Rescue, there were three career staff members, including him. He said that one of his proudest achievements during his time with the county has been growing the ranks of those career firefighters and staff while still maintaining good relations with volunteers, who have very proud histories of volunteer service, Yew said.

“There’s 48 (career employees) altogether plus seven part-time positions,” he said. “It wasn’t difficult, but there were some challenges that needed to be overcome … Availability of volunteers has significantly dropped for multiple reasons. You have volunteers that have to work multiple jobs because of the economy or both parents are working … The volunteers saw the need for increased staff so that we could maintain a good service level in the county. It wasn’t like it was a fight … All the career staff we’ve hired were positions the volunteers asked for.”

Yew has also worked to implement uniformity and continuity measures throughout the county to allow for smoother operations and easier transitions for staff.

“We have people in position now to start working on countywide standard operating guidelines and countywide training systems. All those start (to) bring some unification to the system countywide among the volunteers and the career staff. That’s truly beneficial and again, that’s been another desire of the volunteers.”

That unification and uniformity from town to town and department to department is something that Yew says is invaluable.

“Up until that point (when countywide standards and training were enacted), each volunteer entity pretty much operated independently of each other,” Yew said. “They had separate standard operating guidelines, which when you get on an incident, would sometimes cause some confusion. So now we’ve been in position with staff to be able to start to bring some unity to how we operate over the years, so I’ve seen that as a big plus too.”

Moreover, Yew said he’s proud of the relationships between career and volunteer staff.

“In all the stations that we have career staff, they’ve always gotten along with volunteers,” he said. “They interface with each other very well. They eat together. They train together. They socialize together, so that’s a part that I’m proud of. I think the availability to start to bring some continuity in the way we manage the system is beneficial as well.”

Yew said he is optimistic about the future of fire and rescue service within the county and hopes to see new solutions to the age-old problems faced by the county’s departments.

“I’m hoping that we’re going to always be in a position that we do what we can to maintain the health of the volunteer system in the county,” he said. “I think we’re going to have to do it in a little bit different way. I think we’re going to have to recognize that one of the biggest challenges the volunteers have is simply time management.”

He said that fund-securing methods could benefit from some county help, allowing firefighters to focus on fighting fires and going on rescue calls.

“Not only do they have to run the ever-increasing number of calls but they’ve still got their fundraising responsibilities and station duties and I think we need to work harder to bring them into the county’s capital improvement program and start looking at greater ways to support their capital needs and hopefully decrease the time they have to spend in fundraising,” Yew said. “I’d like to envision a system where the only things that volunteers have to is answering calls and training. That would be ideal and that should be the target.”

The next phase of Yew’s career  journey will take him into a new realm. He will work with Richmond-based Dominion Security Services, a Valley Health contractor, in an emergency preparedness and safety-related capacity.

“I’ll be helping them with emergency preparedness and emergency management,” he said. “Say, for example, there’s an overturned tour bus where you know the hospitals are going to have to accept a lot of patients. (My duties will be) making sure there are procedures and systems in place so that staff is ready for that.”

Contact staff writer Nathan Budryk at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or nbudryk@nvdaily.com