Clarke putting its emergency services under microscope

Posted: July 27, 2013

The Winchester Star

BERRYVILLE — Emergency services in Clarke County are about to go under a microscope, and the process could lead to changes.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Michael Hobert has appointed five residents to serve on a fire and emergency medical services (EMS) work group.

Their charge will be to assess the state of the county’s emergency services, determine what is required to meet the public’s needs and suggest ways to pay for any recommended upgrades.

Board members voted 5-0 on June 18 to establish the panel, immediately after they had unanimously voted to dissolve the Shenandoah Farms Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company.

The fire company was established to serve parts of Clarke and Warren counties, but court documents indicate that it often was operated as if it were a fraternity house with firetrucks.

The decision to create the panel was not related directly to the problems at Shenandoah Farms, county officials stressed, and the idea had been under consideration by supervisors and county staff members for some time.

“A combination of things have come together to make us decide to deal with it in a little more formal way, seek community input for recommended steps to be taken,” Hobert said. “We already have an existing system, but it appears that it may not be sufficient. I think there are a lot of alternatives and models out there that could be looked at.”

Since the decision was made to create the work group, two things have occurred that will affect the panel.

Chief Harold Rohde of the John H. Enders Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company notified county and Town of Berryville officials in June that he was concerned about the company’s ability to respond to all of its emergency medical calls in a timely and safe manner.

Then, this month, the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association selected the Clarke County Fire and Rescue Association as one of 14 departments in Virginia to participate in a federally funded program designed to increase volunteer firefighter and EMS personnel recruitment.

Hobert has appointed Jay Braithwaite, Randy Buckley, Beth Leffel, Laure Wallace and Berryville Police Chief Neal White to the work group. Board Vice-Chairman David Weiss will be the supervisors’ liaison, with Planning Director Brandon Stidham providing staff support.

The group’s responsibilities are:

To review the status of the county’s fire and rescue organizations and its emergency communications system. Volunteer organization staffing policies, their staffing levels and certifications, state staffing and certification requirements and call-response times are among the data expected to be collected.

To recommend actions needed to ensure that the county’s public safety organizations are meeting community needs.

To investigate and recommend ways to fund the suggested changes.

Clarke County and Berryville pay for five career staff members and part-time help at Enders, county Finance Director Thomas Judge said.

The Boyce Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company also pays to have one person at its station from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

Hobert said a drop in volunteers — a problem nationwide, not just in Clarke County — might mean more paid help is needed.

“Sometimes you hit a tipping point where you have to turn more operations over to career providers,” he said. “We’re looking at whether that has to occur, whether we need to transition to that.”

County Administrator David Ash agreed, citing “an uncertainty as to whether or not we can continue as we are.”

He said he supported the work group effort because it was effective in the mid-2000s when the county government tackled its emergency communications radio system needs.

Bryan Conrad said he thinks getting the community involved in fire and EMS discussions is a good idea.

As president of the Clarke County Fire and Rescue Association — which represents the county’s three volunteer organizations — and the chief of Boyce’s fire company, he knows how much the community depends on the mostly volunteer services — but questions whether citizens have any idea of the extent of those efforts.

“The general public doesn’t realize what’s involved in getting that accomplished, how much work it is, how much it costs, how much time it is,” he said.

Firefighting and EMS techniques have become more sophisticated over the years, Conrad said, and volunteers must meet training requirements that are more demanding than they were as recently as 10 years ago.

He also questions whether people realize how expensive staffing a fire station can be.

By his calculations, providing the personnel to staff a single station with six people per shift and associated expenses such as training and providing protective clothing would cost about $1 million annually.

“I think it’s a valuable thing that we’re going to open up a discussion and say, ‘Let’s look at what your expectations are as a population and look at what might be necessary to make sure we achieve those,’” Conrad said, “or maybe we need to realize that we can’t achieve those expectations.”

Paying to meet the public’s demands could be a big hurdle. Hobert said grants could help with some issues, and he and Supervisor John Staelin said fee-for-service — a charge placed on people who require ambulance transportation to a hospital — is among the funding mechanisms that might be explored.

“I think it’s open-ended,” Staelin said of the funding issue. “This isn’t a matter of finding ways to spend more money. It’s a matter of what are our needs and what are the ways we can pay for those needs.”

— Contact Vic Bradshaw atvbradshaw@winchesterstar.com