MIDDLETOWN – The communities of Middletown and Stephens City, in a joint public safety hearing held Monday night, asked their town attorney J. David Griffin to draft a resolution for the respective town councils asking for a slower pace in debating whether to adopt proposed changes in the county's fire department study.
"There is no one in the room that is not in favor of a combination system. There is no way volunteer departments can maintain with just volunteers," Middletown Fire Chief Mark Dalton said.
But he said he does not believe Frederick County can put a tax in place to fund the system as proposed in the fire study. If they county could do that, then why, he asked, are they making the volunteer departments struggle now to where volunteer departments hold fundraisers to pay for operation costs and to pay for equipment? An example he provided is Frederick County cutting from the county budget funding that would have paid for about 100 radios to be used by firefighters that would impact their safety.
"Where in the study does it state 'we are going to enhance volunteers or their training?'" Dalton asked.
For him, it is a question of control.
Dalton has expressed concern the report would give control of the departments, their finances, resources and equipment to the county.
He called to continue to look for better solutions than the recommendation in the fire report drafted by Fitch and Associates.
"You need to stand up and help us fight against this," Dalton said.
Stephens City Fire Chief John Jones said he agreed with Dalton.
"It's not just Middletown and Stephens City – the other communities in Frederick County have the same concern," Jones said.
He reiterated that with the town receiving 2,700 calls per year that it cannot be done just with volunteers. Jones pointed out that only 8 percent of the calls they respond to were in town limits. All others were in the county.
'I don't believe this system is the answer," Jones said.
It was also suggested the fire departments get communities involved, such as with one or more public session where citizens, all 11 volunteer fire stations, and officials can speak. It was proposed that a public hearing be held in a centralized location allowing more people to attend. Griffin recommended that someone check to see if that hearing could be held at the South End fire station in Winchester because it is a large space and Winchester is not involved in the matter.
That suggestion came after Stephens City Vice Mayor Jason Nauman said Fitch and Associates failed to have meaningful involvement from the two towns while working on the report.
Nauman said more conversations need to be held with residents and all of the volunteer departments.
The joint safety committees heard the chiefs, both voting unanimously to move forward with the suggestions.
"You definitely have our support," Middletown's Public Safety Chairman Scott Fink said to the chiefs.
"We need to get the community involved," he said.
There were about 15 people in the audience to hear what was said.
Afterward, Stephens City Mayor Mike Diaz said he was there to support the decisions made by the town's public safety committees, including calls for more input from the volunteer fire departments.
Middletown Mayor Charles Harbaugh offered his take on the joint meeting and his concerns.
"I think it's great towns are working so close. Let's slow down the process. Volunteers who volunteer do so because of who the chief is. I am afraid volunteerism will go down if this happens," Harbaugh said.
Also in the audience was Marty Monk, a volunteer with the Middletown Fire Department.
He said afterward that he is trying to get an understanding of what the plan details and what it means for the volunteer departments.
"I have concerns if they take our finances, our equipment and our buildings," Monk said.
Frederick County Fire Chief Dennis Linaburg previously said the study was requested by the Frederick County Board of Supervisors in early 2017. It was conducted by Fitch & Associates.
The study was prompted by necessity as departments are finding it hard to find volunteers, forcing them to hire and pay more career firefighters.
The report recommended that the structure of the county fire and rescue services be reconsidered to create a single fire chief.
The organizational chart would place the chief of a volunteer fire department below the rank of the Frederick County Operations Division Deputy Chief.
Financial problems were another factor that prompted the study as volunteer departments are finding it harder to maintain financial soundness, he said.
The study looked at the fire stations in Frederick County, reviewing many categories, including finances, equipment, staffing levels and response times.
The study states that the average fire response time is 10.3 minutes.
The county would need to look at the possibility of relocating the 11 fire stations to lower the response time to closer to 8 minutes, according to the report.
To download a PDF of the executive summary of the report, visit https://www.fcva.us/home/showdocument?id=16030.