Fire-rescue changes needed to keep volunteer system viable

Supervisors also hear secondary road plan, approve Castleton permits

At their monthly meeting Monday (April 6), Rappahannock County’s supervisors were told by the consultants hired last year to assess the county’s fire and rescue needs that it faces a lengthy list of potentially difficult decisions to keep the all-volunteer system viable — as well as all-volunteer.

In a detailed presentation to the board, JLN Associates partners Nick Delia and John Nickerson reported that after many meetings over the past six months with emergency-services volunteers and county leaders, the county’s biggest challenge is its aging population. It’s a reality that means the percentage of emergency calls for medical reasons is comparatively high (nearly two-thirds of all calls) — and also means the volunteer responders themselves are comparatively older than the national average.

“The one major conclusion that we can’t take any issue with is the level of effort of the key volunteers within your community, who are working very hard to provide both fire and rescue services,” said Nickerson at the start of the presentation.

The board took no action, but County Administrator John McCarthy suggested the supervisors set a date at its next regular meeting May 4 for a public hearing to happen later in May — specifically to allow a public airing of the recommendations made by JLN.

The recommendations, Delia said, included instituting a county-wide volunteer recruitment program coordinated by “a single entity” rather than individual companies. It could be a committee of the county’s fire and rescue association or a part-time position, he said. A coordinated training program and re-institution of a public safety academy for future emergency responders — either in the local school system or on a regional basis — was also recommended.

Delia recommended changes to the way EMS and fire dispatching is done, including connecting individual volunteers to the emergency communications system (to allow for direct responses to calls for help), and coordinating responses based on available personnel and equipment rather than geographical company locations.

He also said capital facility improvements were needed, most particularly at Chester Gap Volunteer Fire and Rescue and the Sperryville Volunteer Rescue Squad, and recommended changes to the way fire and rescue operations are supported — specifically by simplifying and making more transparent the way the fire levy tax is distributed to individual companies by the county. The goal would be to allow for more strategic financial planning by the companies and the county, he said.

An important recommendation, Delia said, concerns eliminating any “potential conflict of interest” in the county’s emergency services, a reference that county emergency services coordinator Richie Burke — who has also been chief of the Sperryville Volunteer Fire Department for the past 19 years — admitted Tuesday was indeed pointed in his direction.. He said his dual role has caused friction and resentment over the years among some of the county’s other volunteer companies, and that he has been planning “for some time” to step down as SVFD’s chief.

Delia said JLN’s overall conclusion was that Rappahannock did not need to seek paid emergency help — that route being “a slippery slope,” both in terms of the snowballing need for more paid responders and the tendency for the volunteer system to consequently lose steam. What’s needed, he said, is a coordinated community effort to make changes — although at least one supervisor bristled at JLN’s suggestion that the county’s restrictive zoning be relaxed to create areas where volunteers could afford to live.

“We’ll see,” said Stonewall-Hawthorne supervisor Chris Parrish. “It will be a lot of work to implement these changes, but we clearly have to do something.”

EMS Cost Recovery funds

The board was told later in the meeting by McCarthy that the first year of the county’s EMS Cost Recovery program, adopted by ordinance last May after nearly a year of planning by the county and the Rappahannock County Fire and Rescue Association, netted about $120,000 — which the supervisors on Monday voted to distribute proportionately to the county’s volunteer companies, based on a formula that accounts for call volume and other factors.

Washington Volunteer Fire and Rescue received the largest distribution of the volunteer squads ($39,433). Sperryville Rescue Squad received the next largest amount ($26,717).

McCarthy projected last year that the program would eventually bring in $350,000 to $400,000 a year, and said “we aren’t totally certain why the number this first year is so low.” In part, he said, it was likely due to a learning process by the county and its fire and rescue companies on submitting “proper” claims to insurance companies; apparently, a significant number of claims were rejected.

The program allows the county to bill insurance carriers for trips made by volunteer rescue squads from any location in Rappahannock County to a hospital or medical facility. (County residents, or those who qualify for the program’s financial hardship exemption, are not responsible for any portion of the fee not paid by insurance.)

VDOT’s secondary road plan

VDOT program specialist Gregory Banks told the board that a slight increase in funding for secondary road projects in the county was expected in fiscal year 2016 (which begins this July 1), increasing the total available to about $203,000. The large majority of that, or $180,000, is from the state’s “CTB Formula” fund, which provides money for paving unpaved roads.

To put those numbers in perspective: Rappahannock County has 219 miles of secondary roads; about 71 of those miles are unpaved. Banks said it costs about $800,000 per mile to build an unpaved road, and $3 million per mile to build a paved road (not including bridges, which are generally paid for from a different state fund).

VDOT’s current six-year plan proposes paving parts of Aaron Mountain Road (now underway, as part of the state’s Rural Rustic Road program, a cost-effective that requires a resolution be passed by the local supervisors and does not require any widening of the existing right-of-way), Rolling Road, Viewtown Road and the largest of them, a two-mile section of Battle Mountain Road. (The plan also includes bridge reconstruction projects on Jericho Road at Big Indian Run and North Poes Road at the Jordan River, Banks said, pointing out again that these are paid for by a separate state fund.)

During the public comment portion of the supervisors’ meeting, which preceded Banks presentation, Paul Komar of Castleton rose to implore the supervisors to include Turkey Ridge Road in the six-year secondary road plan. Regraded last year by VDOT crews, Komar said, Turkey Ridge is now worse than ever, its gravel degraded by chloride solutions applied in the fall and winter; potholes and ravines are ever widening, he said.

Komar was joined by a half-dozen of his Turkey Ridge neighbors, who stood to repeat his request that the road be added to the six-year plan, and that the supervisors also consider passing the resolution that would allow the paving to be done under the less-expensive Rural Rustic Road program.

Turkey Ridge Road, according to VDOT’s most recent (2013) traffic counts, just misses being in the top 10 busiest unpaved roads in the county — as do Aaron Mountain Road and Battle Mountain Road, actually. Whorton Hollow Road tops the list at 170 vehicle trips per day; at the bottom of the top 10 is Hunters Road (100 vehicles). Aaron Mountain Road comes in at 11th (100 vehicles), Battle Mountain 13th (90) and Turkey Ridge 15th (80).

Parrish asked if some of the funds designated for Battle Mountain Road, the remaining unpaved sections of which he said “are not in bad shape, overall,” might be redirected to Turkey Ridge Road. Banks said VDOT would investigate whether Turkey Ridge Road is a candidate for the Rural Rustic Road program. “If it’s not,” he said, “it’s more than four miles long, and that’s a . . . multiple-million-dollar project.”

The six-year secondary road plan will come before the board again, as a final version — though the supervisors can still request changes — at a public hearing at the board’s next monthly meeting May 4 at the courthouse (at the 7 p.m. session).

Castleton year-round events approved

At its evening meeting Monday, the supervisors unanimously approved two event-related special-exception permits for the Castleton Festival, both recommended by the planning commission last month. The first is a new special-exception permit that allows Castleton to host up to 12 weekend events at its 650-seat Festival Theatre throughout the year. At Parrish’s suggestion, the supervisors added one condition to those already asked by the planners: that no wine tastings be allowed. The other conditions changed the original request for 12 “weekend events” to “12 one-day events,” and restricted the events to inside the Festival Theatre, required they end by 11 p.m. and imposed a two-year review period.

The other permit approved was the scheduled two-year review of Castleton’s 2012 permit to increase seating at the Festival Theatre from 400 to 650. McCarthy again reported no unusual traffic-related problems in the last two years during the summer festival, noted the commission’s suggestion that signage be placed to avoid sending out-of-town visitors down the narrow and unpaved Whorton Hollow Road, and the board approved the permit with no further periodic reviews.

Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 544 Articles
Former Rappahannock News editor Roger Piantadosi is a writer and works on web and video projects for Rappahannock Media and his own Synergist Media company. Before joining the News in 2009, he was a staff writer, editor and web developer at The Washington Post for almost 30 years.