County to revive work on fire, rescue plan

WOODSTOCK – Shenandoah County leaders hope a facilitator at a modest price can revive efforts to improve local emergency response services.

The Board of Supervisors could consider a proposal to hire a facilitator for $9,500 who would hold meetings with representatives from paid and volunteer fire and rescue companies to continue a strategic planning process. Staff brought the matter before the board for discussion only.

County officials and the board in recent years have heard concerns from volunteer companies and residents they serve about an apparent lack of available responders at some of the stations and the need for paid staff to fill the gaps in coverage.

Assistant County Administrator Evan Vass provided information to the board at a recent meeting, and supervisors could take action on the proposal in the near future. Vass told the board that the county might try to secure grant funding to cover the cost of hiring a facilitator.

The county initiated the strategic planning process for fire and rescue services in July 2017, though the discussion began at least as early as 2015, Vass noted. The planning group included representatives from the volunteer companies, the Department of Fire and Rescue and residents from each of the county’s six districts. The group met twice. The first meeting included a kick-off session that used information collected from a previous emergency response exercise. The group used its second meeting to identify areas consolidated into a dozen core themes from which members concentrated on the Top 4: system-wide resources, depth, chain of command and recruitment and retention.

Volunteers and county staff members ran into trouble trying to keep the process on track, Vass said, noting that organizers knew that would pose challenge.

“We really had a good start in July and just got sidetracked,” Vass told the board. “I think we all had good intentions.”

Officials suggested earlier this year that the county hire a facilitator to keep the planning process on track and focused. County staff members contacted three potential facilitators and asked about pricing. The Berkley Group in Bridgewater, Virginia, offered to facilitate the planning process at a suggested price of $9,500. The company would use a retired county administrator and a town manager to aid the strategic planning group to develop policies and goals related to the combined emergency responder system.

Staff members recommend the county hire a facilitator, not a consultant, Vass noted.

“So we’re not suggesting you hire someone to tell you what to do,” Vass said. “That would cost certainly more money and probably wouldn’t be frankly as valuable as something you’ve done on your own with your community members, your providers, your volunteers as well as career members.

“But this would be an organization that would help us stay on task, which we have attempted to do,” he added. “But when you are doing that with a group of people who have many, many other duties on a typical day, that has proven unfortunately a difficult task for us.”

Chairman Conrad Helsley asked staff in January to look for firms that provide strategic planning assistance and gather prices. Staff reached out to three firms, one of which expressed no interest and another did not respond to a request for information, Vass said.

The Berkley Group’s proposal submitted to the county states that the company would develop a fire and rescue strategic plan within 90 days upon receiving the notice to proceed for a cost not to exceed $9,500. The scope of work in the proposal calls for the company to coordinate stakeholder efforts within the strategic planning group already established. The facilitator intends to hold up to three strategic planning meetings with the stakeholders, summarize the outcomes and report the results to the county administrator’s office.

The county would recruit from the same stakeholders enlisted for the process last year – paid and volunteer responders, department representatives as well as residents.

District 2 Supervisor Steve Baker said he has supported the idea of the strategic planning group because the county needs a vision for its fire and rescue services. Baker said the county should move forward with hiring a facilitator.

District 4 Supervisor Karl Roulston said a facilitator should let the meeting happen and keep participants focused on the subject. A facilitator would cost money to employ but that person helps keep the group from wasting time, Roulston said.

District 3 Supervisor Richard Walker said he agreed that the board needs a facilitator for the planning process. Walker suggested someone familiar with the county’s system of paid and volunteer responders might work better for this process.

Helsley said he hoped the county could put the process back on track and move forward.