WOODSTOCK – Shenandoah County leaders could soon adopt a long-awaited plan aimed at coordinating paid and volunteer emergency responders.
But one supervisor says some volunteers worry that the proposed plan puts the county Department of Fire and Rescue in charge of the combined system.
Fire and Rescue Chief Tim Williams presented the proposed strategic plan to the Board of Supervisors at its meeting Tuesday for discussion. The board, which received the draft of the plan Dec. 18, expects to consider adopting it in February.
District 3 Supervisor Richard Walker said he was concerned the organizational structure proposed in the plan would undermine another area of emphasis – recruitment and retention of responders.
A strategy under the organizational structure calls for the Board of Supervisors to immediately create an ordinance setting up the lines of authority for the fire and rescue chief. The county should immediately realign the chief fire and emergency medical officers committee, also known as the chiefs and captains committee, and require mandatory representation from each volunteer company or squad.
Assistant County Administrator Evan Vass gave the board a synopsis of the committee’s work and the proposed plan.
“This strategic plan absolutely empowers the volunteers and the career system to work as a combination system,” Vass said. “That was a theme from the beginning of the strategic planning process.”
District 4 Supervisor Karl Roulston lauded the work on the strategic plan. Chairman Conrad Helsley noted that the proposed document calls for the county or the Board of Supervisors to address any problems that may arise out of the plan.
Walker voiced concerns about the proposed plan and noted that he met numerous times with many volunteer responders at the various stations. He said he appreciated the mention of the concept of fire districts – an option he has promoted many times – in the plan. The fire-district approach, in which the county would act as coordinator, not supervisor, would better address the locality’s emergency response needs, Walker said.
“I’ve heard rumblings from volunteers that when we look at the change in the organization plans ... it doesn’t make many of those volunteers feel that, while instead of the county being there to support them and they being responsible for their decisions in their locality, it (is) flipped-flopped ..." Walker said. “I think that perception is going to be highly negative."
Walker said there are a lot of good thoughts and good ideas in the plan.
“The one thing that everybody seems to agree on is that recruitment and retention are the primary things, that that was the No. 1 priority," he said. "I think that the organization provided in here is going to have just the opposite effect.”
Some volunteers have expressed concern that the county chief shouldn’t control volunteer companies, Walker told the board. District 5 Supervisor Dennis Morris asked Walker who specifically raised these concerns, but Walker only said volunteers other than those involved in the creation of the proposed plan.
County officials and representatives from volunteer companies began initial planning in 2017 for immediate, short- and long-term strategies to address the county’s fire and rescue operations in the combined system. The Board of Supervisors directed staff last summer to move forward with creating a strategic plan for the combined system. Drew Williams and Joe Paxton, with the Berkeley Group, facilitated the work with a steering committee made up of administrative staff, volunteer and paid fire and rescue workers and residents.
The steering committee met over several months to identify and prioritize areas of emphasis in the system. The committee identified five core areas: retention and recruitment; organizational structure; training; communications; human and equipment needs. Each of five subcommittees made up of volunteer and paid responders addressed individual facets of the strategic plan.
“It is written from an operational perspective,” Vass said in his synopsis. “It embraces existing committees that already are established ... and the idea is that the volunteers along with the career representation can implement the very strategies.”
Recruitment and retention remain the greatest challenges for local fire and rescue services, Vass said.
Should supervisors endorse the concept of the proposed plan, the document would come back before the board if needed to add provisions to the county code, Vass explained in response to a question from Morris. The chiefs and captains would address any changes to operations in the field, he said.