Augusta: Developing a new model for fire, rescue

It was sometime around 2000 or 2001 when I realized that the way we’ve always done things in Augusta County relative to the provision of fire and rescue service, with the bulk of the work done by volunteers, was no longer sufficient to get the job done.

I had invited myself out on a Saturday morning to help members of the Stuarts Draft Rescue Squad raise money by standing out in the middle of the intersection of U.S. 340 and Route 608. It didn’t take long for the realization to hit.

Cars and trucks were whizzing by; I could feel the road moving, as Darrell Waltrip might say, beneath my feet.

What sense does it make, I thought, the ground swaying under me, that we not only rely on volunteers to go into burning houses and go out to car wrecks on backroads and interstates in the middle of the night, and all the rest, but we make them stand out in the middle of the road to beg people for the money that it takes to do what they do?

Fast forward about a decade, to the situation being faced by the county with regard to its volunteer fire department in Fishersville, Preston L. Yancey, which serves a rapidly growing area of residences, commercial properties and the region’s medical district, with an ever-declining base of volunteers straining at the gills to not only answer calls but also raise money and keep up with training requirements.

The immediate issue being faced down by county leaders is what to do to address a low insurance-industry rating given to the Yancey fire company that is pushing up insurance costs for Fishersville-area residents.

The response, and the jury is out on what it will do, but it’s what we have, will add another paid firefighter to the Yancey rolls, shift some coverage areas for nearby volunteer companies and also engage the county’s 24-7 station in Staunton.

That’s the short-term fix. The bigger question now being looked at by local leaders – what about that model of emergency-service delivery that we’ve had in place for time immemorial? Can we continue to rely as we have and as we do on volunteers to provide the bulk of the work?
 

Change in direction

“The time has come where this is a new world in fire-rescue, and we’ve got to think of things differently, and I think the answer of, This is the way we’ve always done it, is no longer an acceptable answer,” said Nancy Sorrells, who represents the Riverheads District on the Augusta County Board of Supervisors, and who has been successful in her effort to have the county partner in the launch of a new volunteer fire-rescue station that will serve the Greenville area.

“We need to recognize, and we already know, that volunteers aren’t our future. They’re a glorious part of our past, they’re an important part of our present, but they’re not our future,” said Tracy Pyles, who represents the Pastures District on the Board, and has been sharply critical of fellow Board members for what he feels is a head-in-the-sand attitude toward the issues with emergency services that have come to public scrutiny with the goings-on with Yancey.

“It has bothered me a lot to hear them say, Oh, gosh. Now we know we’ve got a problem. This is a good wakeup call. That’s absolute nonsense. We’ve known of this problem for a long time,” Pyles said.

Wayne District Supervisor Wendell Coleman, whose district is based in Fishersville, seems to acknowledge this. “I’m personally of the opinion that it’s time, and some might be of the opinion that it’s beyond time, to look at our entire delivery system, how it is we do what we do,” said Coleman, who also seems to acknowledge the crtiicism of Pyles in offering that it’s “time to look past politics” and focus instead on crafting a solution to the long-term issues.

Consensus, indeed, seems to be building among Board members toward some sort of formal review of service-delivery options. Coleman favors having the county engage an outside consultant “that doesn’t have a quote ‘dog in the fight'” to assist in the review; Sorrells leans toward the formation of a task force including members of the Board, county fire chief Carson Holloway, representatives of the volunteer emergency-services community and leaders from Waynesboro and Staunton and a professional facilitator.

“We’ve come up with a good solution for a short-term fix. The long term is, we’ve got a system that’s really beyond our control at this point. We can’t keep putting Band-Aids on it,” said Sorrells, who feels Board members need to be willing to “put everything on the table” to work toward a solution to the issue.

“We need to keep in mind that it may take a revamping of the entire system. A couple hundred volunteers, fortysome paid people, thirtysome stations – how do you make that all work as a team? It’s probably going to take some reorganization,” Sorrells said.

Coleman is in agreement in principle with Sorrells on that point. “By policy,” Coleman said, “we’ve never pushed paid people on the volunteers. The volunteers, by policy, had to come to that decision on their own and petition the Board of Supervisors for help. This Board, and previous Boards, have stepped up and provided what has been asked for. But the bottom line is, we have a legal responsibility to protect life and property, and if the volunteers can’t do it, they need to come to grips with that and say they can’t. Because we have no choice but to do it.”

The criticism of Pyles on the newfound sense of urgency on the part of fellow Board members, to be fair, is at least partly political. “Somebody needs to stand up and tell people that the county isn’t being led in the right direction,” says Pyles, who so often clashes with other Board members that he has become the 1 in a long series of 6-1 votes.

But Pyles does make a good case that county leaders may have dropped the ball, and that the zeal to devise a new way of doing business could lead to as much harm as good.

“There’s been a master plan put in place that would allow us to start evolving, but instead of following that master plan, the board has taken things totally in a different direction,” Pyles said. “We know that volunteers are a problem, so what’s the biggest investment we’ve made in fire and rescue lately? In a volunteer station. One-point-six million dollars in a station that’s going to be run by volunteers. We have paid for our own land mine and put it on the path. This can’t work. It won’t work long term.”
 

Writing on the wall

The political give-and-take being what it is, the issue is out there for discussion, and there’s really no easy answer that doesn’t involve dollars and cents. And when it comes to dollars and cents being involved, of course, the answers get even more complex.

“I’ve heard people say, I don’t mind paying the taxes. Well, some people don’t, and some people do,” Holloway said.

Which is to say, even recognizing that a shift from a volunteer-based system to a system that has as its backbone paid firefighters and rescue personnel is upcoming, it’s not going to be enough to just throw money at the problem and hope that it goes away.

“The solutions that we come up with today are going to have to take into consideration what we need tomorrow,” Holloway said. “The dynamics are changing. We have to look at the future here. I’m not saying we go out and hire firefighters to staff us up to 20 years down the road, but we need to be prepared for today and be planning for tomorrow.”

“The budget is a key issue here,” Sorrells agrees. “But just throwing money at it isn’t going to solve anything. We’ve got to look at the system overall and the long-term trends.”

And the long-term trends aren’t good. A system that relied on volunteers to provide the bulk of the labor worked well when more people worked close to where they lived and had the flexibility in their work schedules to leave on a moment’s notice to answer the fire bell. Augusta County isn’t that place anymore, and hasn’t been for years. The Stuarts Draft-Fishersville-Verona-Weyers Cave corridor is becoming more and more an urban corridor with every passing year, with an increasing number of people moving in from other areas attracted by the growing economy and natural beauty of the area and working jobs in regional economic centers in Charlottesville and Harrisonburg.

The county is also aging on the aggregate, with a hole in the twenty- and thirtysomething set that for generations had provided the manpower for volunteer emergency-services units.

“When you hit 40 years old, there are still a lot of valuable 40-year-olds out there who can do a lot of stuff, but interior firefighting is just a young person’s game, the physically fit’s game,” Holloway said. “What used to happen was the younger generation moved up, and their parents, aunts, uncles, whoever brought them into it, they went on and became the administrative people, ran the engines, did the management part. We’re not replenishing the frontline firefighters nearly as quickly as we used to.”

Couple those trends with the increased demands from the state in terms of training required of volunteers, and you have what we have now as a logical outcome.

“It’s to a point where other than having a gun, we just do about anything emergency service-related, from a car wreck to a structure collapse, to explosions, to confined-space rescue in industry. The 120 hours that we spend in Firefighter I and 120 hours that we spend in EMT, that’s just the tip of the iceberg to become proficient in every demand that’s out there,” Holloway said.

“It’s almost impossible for a volunteer to do it. Not that we don’t have some. We have a lot that are very good. But we talk about 500 hours of training. To get to things like tactical rescue, hazardous-materials response, and we’re fortunate we don’t have many issues with hazardous materials, but with Interstate 81 and 64 intersecting in the middle of the county, we have potential, and we have to be trained and ready to handle whatever might come,” Holloway said.
 
 

Story by Chris Graham. Chris can be reached at freepress2@ntelos.net.


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