Fire-rescue refinements move forward

Meeting Tuesday night (June 30) at an informal public work session attended primarily by volunteer fire-and-rescue officials, the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors agreed to move forward with some — but purposely not all — of the recommendations by JLN Associates.

JLN is the consultant hired by the county last year to reassess how the county’s all-volunteer companies can better respond to fires and medical emergencies, and meet the same national standards set for professionally staffed departments.

A handful of the study’s recommendations for improvements to training, recruitment, communications, budgeting, dispatching, funding and grant-writing — all of which are ostensibly meant to postpone indefinitely any move to paid emergency responders, and also cope with the county’s increasingly aging and ever-scattered population — will go back to the county’s fire and rescue association for refinement and be considered for action by the supervisors, most likely at their October meeting.

The association’s chiefs had made their own endorsements of the 15 major JLN recommendations this spring, most of which were ratified by the association’s members. Several were not endorsed by the association — and were similarly not endorsed by the supervisors, either.

“This is not something I would even expect to see in an EMS study,” said Jackson supervisor Ron Frazier, referring to the study’s recommendations that the county investigate changes to its planning and zoning to provide “designated affordable housing zones to support volunteerism,” and to provide “designated retail zones to support jobs for young volunteers and increased tax revenues.”

Rappahannock County Administrator John McCarthy asked the county’s Fire and Rescue Association, and county emergency services manager Richie Burke, to review the study’s other recommendations — most being changes to standard operating procedures — over the summer and draft an implementation plan the board would consider in the fall.

As for the study’s recommendation that the county’s seven volunteer companies consider consolidating both their recruitment efforts and training programs, McCarthy said he believes — pending closer looks at what neighboring jurisdictions are doing — that those tasks, possibly combined with writing proposals for increasingly urban-area-bound firefighting and EMS grants, could constitute at least a new half-time position in the county government, or even a full-time post.

McCarthy also posited out loud that the new position, if it included grant-writing and budgeting responsibilities, might also alleviate the feeling among some fire and rescue officials — reflected in JLN’s recommendations, too — that Burke’s position as emergency services coordinator and chief of Sperryville VFD represents a conflict of interest. Burke repeated Tuesday night his plan to retire as chief by the end of this year.

“But you’ll still be seen as an advocate for Sperryville Fire,” McCarthy said.

Tuesday’s meeting, with four of five county supervisors present (chair Roger Welch was absent), and representatives of most of the county’s volunteer companies in the pews, seemed genial overall, but discussion of financial issues — deciding how much each company would receive from annual fire levy revenues, for instance, especially for such capital projects as renovating their aging fire halls and replacing older rolling equipment — made for the sharpest exchanges.

Chester Gap VFR president Mike Wolniewicz, who stressed the company’s urgent need to fix or replace its crumbling 50-year old headquarters, laughed out loud when McCarthy, running through alternatives for funding projects, mentioned “partnering with Warren County” (where the Chester Gap company responds to many of its daily calls). McCarthy stopped talking.

“So, you’re just saying, ‘Show us the money,’ then?” McCarthy asked Wolniewicz.

“Yes, and a lot of it,” Wolniewicz said. He smiled.

Communications issues — in a county where more than half the residents are without cell coverage — also made for interesting discussions.

In some hollows and hilly areas, Burke said, even the used 800 MHz handheld radios he recently obtained from Prince William’s emergency services department can’t provide complete coverage.

“If you would just let me build two 300-foot towers, we could take care of that,” Burke said, joking.

Hampton district supervisor Bryant Lee piped up. “And which one of those towers do you wanna hang me from?” he said, to more laughter.

Longtime firefighter Bill Welch, sitting in the back with Flint Hill fire chief Bruce Williams, immediately shot back: “Whichever one you vote against!”

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.