Moving forward in Riverheads

Ground was broken on the new Riverheads fire and rescue station in August a couple of weeks before all hell started to break loose on the future of the whole volunteer fire-rescue concept that has served Augusta County for decades.

Construction crews were busy at the site Wednesday morning with quite visible signs of progress on the $1.2 million, 7,000-square-foot structure on Swartzel Shop Road north of Greenville. It’s starting to look like a fire station, and the commitment from the volunteer group that will provide the manpower to run it is that it will be fully operational 24-7 as a volunteer effort.

“That’s the commitment that we took a year ago – that it would be staffed entirely on the fire side with volunteers,” said Nancy Sorrells, who represents the Riverheads District on the Augusta County Board of Supervisors and also serves on the board of the Riverheads Volunteer Fire Department, which will staff the building along with the Staunton Augusta Rescue Squad.

The vast rural county district is currently served by a mix of emergency-services stations, including Stuarts Draft, Middlebrook and several located in neighboring Rockbridge County. Growth in the Greenville area pushed considerations of locating a station in the district.

“It was a huge hole, no doubt about it. With three interstate exits in the district, this is immediately going to be one of the top stations for fire and rescue calls in the county. It’s going to be in the top three, for sure. And with the growth in commercial activity, and the growth in residential that will take off once the economy gets its legs, this isn’t just a need now, but it’s a huge need in the near future,” Sorrells said.

At issue is the move to build a fire and rescue station with the plans that it will be staffed by volunteers 24-7 in the context of the recent headlines regarding troubles at the Preston L. Yancey Fire Department in Fishersville, which is having such difficulty maintaining adequate volunteer staffing levels that the county has been forced to scramble to try to boost coverage with additional paid county personnel.

Pastures Supervisor Tracy Pyles has long been a critic of the Riverheads station, citing long-range county plans to move its Company 10 career personnel out of the firehouse where they are now based inside the Staunton city limits to better serve underserved areas of the county.

“We are where we are. Foundations are being poured. It’s going to be a reality,” said Pyles, who has earned both supporters and critics for his blunt assessment of the future of emergency services in the county.

“Volunteers are not the future. That’s a reality,” Pyles said.

Sorrells counters with the observation that “the future is a strong volunteer system supported with career people.”

“I don’t think you’re going to go forward as a county – our county is so diverse and so different – I think you’ve got to find the right solution for each area. Fishersville is a different community. It’s a more transient community. You have a lot of commuters, a lot of retirees, a lot of people who don’t have roots for a couple of generations. Riverheads is the only magisterial district where it’s the name of the district and the name of the schools and the name of everything that we do. There’s a feeling of pride to be Riverheads that maybe doesn’t carry over to other districts. The school has a chant: Pride, Red Pride. You don’t see that everywhere, but Riverheads is different that way,” Sorrells said.

Offering a quick tour of the station in development, Sorrells detailed the success of volunteer recruitment efforts, with a roster of 20 volunteers ready to staff the station at its projected opening date later this year, and the plans in the works to work with the county school system to develop a junior volunteer program at Riverheads High School to get the next generation of volunteers in line.

“Maybe down the road it’s going to be hard to do this 24-7 with volunteers. But if a few years down the road we have to re-examine that, what do we have here? We still have this fire station as an asset. And there’s no question that we’re serving a big need here,” Sorrells said.
 
 

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



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