Wakeup call: The volunteer system is aging

w-volunteersLocal fire and rescue companies need new recruits

The current county volunteer fire and rescue system may be in peril. There is serious concern among local authorities that the increasingly rigorous training demands from the state, coupled with an aging fire and rescue volunteer population, are challenging the viability of the system — and that means we could have to pay first responders, just like everyone else in the region.

The county’s tradition of volunteer fire and rescue companies began in 1937, when Washington Volunteer Fire and Rescue was founded.

Currently, the county spends $734,750 per year on emergency fire and rescue services, within the $22 million budget (the county spent about $12.4 million last year on the public schools). Each volunteer company owns all of its own equipment, acquired through donations and other funding.

Four fire and rescue company representatives and Emergency Services Coordinator Richie Burke crowded into a small board room on the second floor of the Visitors Center Friday afternoon, invited by Deputy County Administrator Debbie Keyser to discuss an uncertain future for the volunteer fire and rescue system.

The bottom line: The volunteers are aging, and the younger generations are not stepping in to do the heavy lifting. This year, an 82-year-old man ran over 400 emergency response calls, that’s about 75 percent of the calls for his company.

Results from a survey completed by the 200 or so volunteers in the Rappahannock County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association (the Association) — which includes age, number of calls run, and certifications acquired — will be released next week.

Benefits of volunteering:

“The rewards are not financial. The rewards are feeling good about what you have accomplished, feeling good about what job you’ve done, feeling good about what property you saved, or life you saved — that part is rewarding.”

— Paul Komar, Castleton Community Volunteer Fire Department

Rappahannock County is defined by mountain territory dotted with cabins, rolling pastureland and grand estates, and clustered residential communities spackled across 267 square miles. The most recent population census documented 7,373 residents, though a fair number of which only spend weekends and holidays here. It takes about 35 minutes to drive from a house on Slate Mills Road to one on Chester Gap.

Emergency Services Coordinator Richie Burke, who runs more than 90 percent of emergency response calls for his company, said active responders are mostly age 40 and up.

It takes about a year and 500-600 training hours for fire and EMS to “see real action,” according to Amissville Volunteer Fire and Rescue president Jack Atkins, who is also president of the Association. That is a significant investment of time by the volunteer, and money by the county, which pays for classes and certification training, he said.

And a trend continues: The youth aren’t volunteering like they used to, and the ones that do aren’t necessarily sticking around. Castleton Community Volunteer Fire Department president Paul Komar said the appeal needs to go out to the younger generation, that there are benefits to volunteering to fight fires and save lives.

“The rewards are not financial. The rewards are feeling good about what you have accomplished, feeling good about what job you’ve done, feeling good about what property you saved, or life you saved — that part is rewarding,” Komar said.

A benefit for taxpayers

Maintaining the current volunteer system significantly benefits the taxpayer. To put costs and consequences into perspective, County Administrator John McCarthy explained Monday that one cent on the property tax represents about $150,000 in revenue to the county. And a full-time first responder would cost around $85,000 annually. So financing two responders would raise the property tax more than a cent; and McCarthy estimates that at least five full-time responders are necessary to provide proper service to the entire county. That, of course, still requires the existence of a strong volunteer base.

“It’s interesting to watch what’s happened with our neighbors, as this came to them 15 years ago. What happened first was there was paid daytime EMT, paramedic response, because their people were off working jobs in Northern Virginia,” McCarthy said. “What happened next was full-time EMT. Most of our neighbors only have a few people that are paid fire fighters, because volunteers are still doing a lot of that work; some of which is that the training demands are a little different. But for those counties that don’t have as many volunteer fire fighters, they’ve been moving to paid largely for the reasons we’re moving toward it: age; hauling a heavy hose, being able to work the various tools they need in a structure fire, you need physically active and robust people.”

Next door, in Fauquier, the county staffs their emergency services department with 74 full-time employees and annual budget of $6.8 million. But with a population between 65,000-70,000, Fauquier is about ten times the size of Rappahannock.

The move to paid emergency response would also initiate the purchase of new equipment, Burke said, since each individual company owns its own equipment, not the county. He estimates that a new fire truck, fully outfitted costs around a half million dollars, and a new ambulance costs close to a quarter million.

“If the volunteer fire and rescue system fails, we’re not going to have seven paid fire and rescue companies in the county,” McCarthy said. “That clearly isn’t going to happen. So response times might [increase], proximity to houses and therefore the effect on people’s [homeowners] insurance bills. Currently now, people get something of a break on their insurance, because our response times are so quick. That may be affected. So there are downstream consequences beyond just money.”

Consolidating the companies from seven down to three, for example, would significantly increase response time and distance to remote areas of the county, like Boston or Chester Gap.

Strong tradition faces changing times

“I would like to point out that the citizens of Rappahannock should be proud of the tradition they have of helping each other, neighbors helping neighbors,” said Washington Volunteer Fire and Rescue’s Russ Collins. “And if you look around, this is the last county around that completely has a volunteer fire and rescue system. But I think people need to be aware that we kind of feel like we’re at a breaking point, that if some more people don’t step up and say, ‘Ok, I can do that,’ then we’re going to run out of volunteers.”

Sperryville Volunteer Rescue Squad Chief Harold Beebout agreed: “The crisis point is that a number of us have grey hair,” Beebout said, grinning and gesturing at the other men at the table.  

Debbie Keyser said that it is important for county residents to understand that Rappahannock maintains an all-volunteer system, unlike the paid services in surrounding counties.

Castleton Community Volunteer Fire Department president Paul Komar pointed out that the county is notorious for its volunteership, noting participation rates for various nonprofit organizations, but that times have changed since he first became involved with the fire service.

Komar chuckled and said that at 18 or 19, he’d live at the fire station.

“Well they were social centers back then,” Burke noted. “Now kids, a lot of them have a phone, a girlfriend and a nice car, and the last place they want to be is at the firehouse on Saturday night. It used to be, years ago, when this was more rural, you didn’t have a lot else to do. And I mean it’s changed some. That makes a big difference.”

Burke said that this is not just a Rappahannock problem, it’s a national problem.

Komar agreed: “Back in our days there wasn’t an internet, so now there’s other ways to entertain themselves, whether it’s through social media, or just spending time playing games amongst people all over the country. It’s a totally different venue out there today, compared to what we had in the late ’60s.”

Volunteer rewards, and a look to the future

Washington’s Collins said that volunteering could pave a new path to employment.

“On the positive side, in addition to the entry into a really good career — if it turns out that a firefighting or medical career is good for you — the personal knowledge that you gain in these fields I’ve found very useful over the years, in terms of being able to understand medical terminology, or your daughter or your wife is sick and you understand what’s going on,” Collins said. “And if you wind up in the hospital, you know the staff there, and they know you. It’s really a unique position to be in, to understand how the system works and who the people are, what’s involved in medical care. So there is a lot of personal advantage to getting some of the training, it’s not just all about being good to your neighbor.”

The group discussed ideas to drum up interest from the youth, such as tax credits and cash for responders, but the concept of a rewards program seemed intriguing to Keyser, who said that volunteers could receive financial rewards for responding to a certain percentage of calls per year.

It was unanimous among the group of concerned volunteers gathered last Friday that if the transition to paid emergency response begins — or if more people step up and volunteer — they will be able to receive free training and valuable experience by serving in Rappahannock.

How to help

If you have an interest in volunteering, contact your local fire and rescue company:

Sperryville Volunteer Fire Department: 987-8124

Sperryville Volunteer Rescue Squad: 987-8085

Amissville Volunteer Fire and Rescue: 937-5125

Chester Gap Volunteer Fire Department: 635-5482

Flint Hill Volunteer Fire and Rescue: 675-3286

Castleton Community Volunteer Fire Company: 937-4110

Washington Volunteer Fire and Rescue: 675-3615