WINCHESTER — Following months of negotiations, the Winchester Fire and Rescue Department and its four independently owned fire stations have something they've never had before: An all-encompassing, formalized agreement that defines the operational, organizational and administrative roles and responsibilities of the department, its volunteers and Rouss City Hall.
The only thing left to do is to have City Manager Dan Hoffman sign the agreement, which he said he will do next week if City Council gives its blessing. Council is expected to approve the document at its meeting on Tuesday.
The creation of a formalized agreement between the volunteers and the Fire and Rescue Department was one of the top recommendations from an independent study of the department published in April 2020 by the firm Emergency Services Consulting International (ESCI) of Chantilly. That study determined the department was in crisis after years of escalating tensions with Rouss City Hall led to staffing shortages, inabilities to properly respond to emergencies, hostilities between city officials and volunteers, and difficulties recruiting new professional firefighters to join the ranks.
City Hall and the Fire and Rescue Department have made significant strides over the past year to improve both operations and relationships. On July 2, Winchester named Hadden Culp — a recent retiree from the Prince William County Fire and Rescue Department — as its interim chief following the resignation of former Chief William Garrett. Hadden immediately began addressing areas of concern that had been identified in the ESCI study, including the elimination of the short-staffed department's controversial practice of assigning just one firefighter/paramedic to emergency vehicles when responding to reported fires.
Culp's work was continued by Jon Henschel when Henschel was named Winchester fire and rescue chief in late April. Henschel, a longtime firefighter who joined the city's Fire and Rescue Department in 1997 and most recently served as assistant chief, spearheaded completion of the agreement between the city, the department and its volunteers that is scheduled to go before City Council next week.
The Winchester Fire and Rescue Department is comprised of both professional and volunteer firefighters and paramedics. The volunteers also own all four of the city's fire and rescue stations — Friendship, Rouss, Shawnee and South End — and, with the exception of one ladder truck, all of the apparatus used to respond to local emergencies.
For decades, various formal and informal agreements have been enacted to allow the city to use the volunteer-owned stations in order to protect the community. However, there has never been a central document that clearly specifies the terms of the partnership. The lack of such an agreement is one of the things that created tensions in recent years between Rouss City Hall and the Fire and Rescue Department.
Some of that mistrust resurfaced briefly last month when Culp, who now serves the department as a consultant, told Winchester's Public Health and Safety Committee a formalized agreement should be ready to sign in a few weeks. Following that meeting, some volunteers claimed they were never consulted about the agreement and said they would not sign it.
On Wednesday, Henschel appeared before the same committee to offer an update.
"I had an opportunity over the past four weeks to meet with all four boards of the fire companies in town to discuss some of the concerns they had and some of the verbiage changes requested in the document," he said. "I'm happy to announce that everyone has signed the document."
If City Council ratifies the agreement as expected, Hoffman will fill in the document's final signature next week to make it binding and official.
"It's very exciting to finally have this in place," committee Chairwoman Kim Herbstritt said.
"And we have many other things from the study that we're addressing as well," Henschel added.
Attending Wednesday evening’s Winchester Public Health and Safety Committee meeting in Rouss City Hall, which lasted a grand total of four minutes, were Chairwoman Kim Herbstritt and members Les Veach and Evan Clark.