Fire Department blasted at latest restructuring meeting

STRASBURG — Members of the Strasburg Fire Department Restructuring Committee strongly criticized the state of the department Thursday, saying that the department has had widespread issues with documentation, its equipment and with the training of its members.

During the committee’s meeting, Milton Painter, the interim vice president of the department and a member of the restructuring committee, said that he has kept running into difficulties during his time with the department.

“We approved to have a financial audit” during an earlier committee meeting, Painter said. “There needs to be an audit of the whole place.”

Since the restructuring committee first met in the beginning of April, just about every aspect of the department has come under fire from the committee’s members, ranging far beyond criticism of their recent handling of a legal case in which six members were charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

The members have repeatedly expressed concerns about the lack of documentation within the department on a number of fronts, from  bylaws to finances.

The department has had credit card receipts go missing and even had its tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service revoked because the department had not properly filed its paperwork. (The Internal Revenue Service’s website shows that the department’s tax-exempt status was automatically revoked in October 2016.)

Vince Poling, the department’s interim president, added that he has not been able to figure out who are the custodians of various checking accounts the department has.

Meanwhile, Poling tasked himself during the past month with trying to track down how the department amended its bylaws over the years and whether it followed its own procedures in updating the document. In Thursday’s meeting, Poling said that he was unable to figure out how the changes had been made.

Painter called problems with the department’s documentation “the equivalent of an explosion, and all the stuff has gone everywhere.”

“I’m not exaggerating here in that we could really use two, maybe three, 40-hour employees in a temp agency to help sort through, organize, put things into piles so we can know what is what,” Painter said.

And the department may get those extra employees. During Thursday’s meeting, Painter said that he would spend the time until the committee’s next meeting, on June 18, figuring out what exactly the department needed in terms of administrative support and form a request to the committee.

Painter and Poling added that there were a number of other problems within the department, related to the training of members and the maintenance of the department’s equipment.

Painter said that department members have not been adequately trained, leaving a number of people unable to properly fulfill their duties as members “because they haven’t been taught.”

“It’s almost harder than starting them brand new,” Painter said.

Meanwhile, the interim heads of the department have dealt with equipment problems so severe, Painter said, that “I’m just surprised we have fuel and water in the tanks.”

Vince Poling, the department’s interim president and a member of the restructuring committee, said that the department’s ladder truck was recently out of service. Its hydraulic cylinders needed to be repaired, and part of the vehicle was supposed to have been tested five years ago.

The department has also had to make other equipment repairs, Poling said, some of them because members have not used their equipment properly.

Problems within the department are extensive enough that Painter estimated that the restructuring committee would need to remain in place for at least another year.

“At a minimum, it’s 12 months,” Painter said. “Realistically, it’s 18.”

And the problems within the department will likely mean that the town will enact more oversight over the department in the future.

In an earlier interview with the Northern Virginia Daily, Town Manager Wyatt Pearson said that the committee members have considered a measure that would give the town final approval over the choice of fire chief.

During Thursday’s meeting, Mayor Rich Orndorff added that some potential changes could involve changes to the town’s code.

But it is unclear as of yet what changes the committee may pursue. In an earlier interview with the Northern Virginia Daily, Orndorff said that such changes would occur near the end of the committee’s tenure, potentially leaving them a year down the road.

Regardless, Orndorff said that the town will not veer away from having a volunteer-run system.

“We support the volunteer system but we want some controls in there to ensure that we don’t come to this situation again,” Orndorff said.