STRASBURG — The town’s Ordinance Committee is discussing code changes recommended by the Fire Department Restructuring Committee to recognize the Shenandoah County fire chief as having operational authority over the volunteer department.
The fire department will still operate independently from the county, said Ordinance Committee Chairman Scott Terndrup.
“We’re not giving up the Strasburg Volunteer Fire Department to Shenandoah County,” he said during a Sept. 23 committee meeting.
Town Manager Wyatt Pearson said the town has been working with the restructuring committee on the department’s bylaws and articles of incorporation to ensure that, “if we were ever in a similar situation that we were a year and a half ago, now,” then the town or county would have the ability to “step in and fix” it.
In November 2017, several members of the department were accused of raping a 17-year-old. Six members including then Fire Chief Dale King were arrested the following month on misdemeanor charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. All were accused of having sex with and/or video recording sex acts with the girl.
In April 2018, one current and three former members of the department, including King, were sentenced to jail for periods that varied from one to three months, the Northern Virginia Daily reported. In May 2018, a fifth member was also convicted and sentenced. Charges against the sixth member were dropped in April 2018.
The town demanded the formation of a restructuring committee in March 2018 to temporarily have control over the Fire Department’s administrative functions, citing “an ‘unacceptable’ and ‘morally reprehensible’ culture within the department,” the Northern Virginia Daily reported.
The primary reason Pearson said the town was able to help the department move forward was that the town had leased out the fire department structure and then provided the department with an annual donation.
“Had they been in a situation of fiscal responsibility where they could have stepped away and not cared about our donation and then gone and rented somewhere else,” he said, “they could have continued down the path of destruction that they were on for that period of time.”
“We’re thankful to have some amount leverage,” he continued, “but it’d be better to have leverage in code if we were ever to run into this situation in the future.”
It was decided the town would try to write a mechanism to the town code that would allow county oversight of the Fire Department, Pearson explained.
This also applies to the standard operating authority the chief has over all of the volunteer departments in the county, Pearson said on Tuesday.
In June, the county passed an ordinance that gave Chief Tim Williams of the Department of Fire and Rescue prescriptive powers over other departments in the county, Pearson said on Tuesday.
“This [code amendment] is the town recognizing that control,” he said. “It’s less of an interim situation than a permanent situation.”
He said if the Strasburg Fire Department appoints a chief in the future, that individual will be secondary power to the county fire chief.
"The [county fire] chief shall have supervision and operational control over the department," Pearson read from the ordinance at last month's meeting. "The chief shall have the authority to enforce department standard operating guidelines and standard operating procedures.”
With newly proposed changes to the town code, he said the town is granting the Fire Department authority “to make bylaws as may be consistent with the laws of the state and the town ordinances.”
As part of the code, the Town Council is to provide the Fire Department with a suitable place to house equipment and fire paraphernalia, such as vehicles and firefighting equipment. All of this would remain the property of the town, Pearson said.
“As long as the volunteer department meets the minimum standards to be a volunteer department, the council will consider appropriating some form of a monetary donation on an annual basis,” Pearson said.
Other amendments to the town code include consulting with Town Attorney Nathan Miller on removing redundancies in the fire prevention code, Pearson said.
“The county enforces the fire prevention code on our behalf,” he said.
Terndrup encouraged the community to read the town’s Unified Development Ordinance online at strasburgva.com to inform themselves of what’s important to them.
“The language is really important in code,” Terndrup said. “Language is structured to survive legal challenges.”
“It is written to serve its purpose,” he said.