Staffing plan moving forward: Warren Fire and Rescue still faces plenty of challenges

Warren County Fire and Rescue's Jeremy Greenbacker, left, and Jared Lewis, right, both firefighter/EMTs, sit inside the ambulance at South Warren Volunteer Fire Station on Friday. Lewis and four other former part-time employees recently started as full-time employees. Greenbacker, who works full time for Winchester Fire and Rescue, serves as a part-time employee for Warren County. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – Warren County Fire and Rescue’s recently adopted staffing plan has gone into action, as five part-time employees received promotion to career staff. Although Fire Chief Richard Mabie is happy to fill those five vacancies, plenty of challenges remain, ranging from declining volunteerism to competition with departments to the east.

With the recent promotions of Collin Cole, Eric Sothen, Jared Lewis, Bonnie Polk, and Alex Leibbrand, fire and rescue has 34 career staffers and five stations covered for 24 hours.

The Board of Supervisors approved the staffing plan in December 2017, and it required $130,000 in this year’s budget. The county and fire and rescue met in the middle, as two more positions were requested to bring 24-hour coverage at the South Warren station. Instead, two daytime positions were moved from Rivermont to South Warren. Those daytime positions will remain vacant until completion of the new Rivermont station, which Mabie said he hopes to see ground broken on this summer.

Mabie said ideally each station would have 24-hour coverage, but realizes the difficulties in that becoming a reality. He noted the average career staffer earns about $60,000, depending on EMS certifications.

Warren County offers a starting salary of about $38,000. Mabie said that is somewhat comparable with Shenandoah and Frederick counties as well as the city of Winchester, and the department has only lost a couple of staffers to those localities in recent years. The true competition lies further east, where starting salaries exponentially increase. Fauquier County, for example, offers about $45,000.

“Of course we would like to see the starting salary increase. Not that we would get more quality applicants, but we would get more applicants,” Mabie said.

While he said Warren County is lucky to have some career staff who have been employed a decade-plus and “like giving back to their community,” there will always be some “who are all about the money.”

All county departments were recently instructed to not request increases in the upcoming budget. Fire and rescue obeyed that instruction, and will not request additional positions. Mabie said he would be happy to receive funding “for what we’ve got.”

The need for more career staff, however, will grow as volunteerism continues its steady decline.

Mabie said the volunteer decline is due to a variety of factors, including people becoming parents at young ages and commuting to work. The issue is “not unique to Warren County, it’s everybody.”

He added that volunteerism will continue to get worse before it improves.

He noted that a lot of devotion is put into just becoming a volunteer, as applicants can be required to have up to 300 hours of training.

“Volunteerism is more than going by the wayside. People just don’t have time … they are more concerned with this that and the other. Just more people competing for a piece of that free time pie, if you will,” he said.

Mabie said determining the exact number of volunteers is difficult because there is not a set definition. He estimated the county to have between 50 and 65 responding volunteers, while an ideal number would be about 20 per station.

Maybe encouraged anyone interested in volunteering to “visit to your neighborhood fire station.”