Study says Botetourt emergency services ‘strong’ but director needed and an association to replace FARST

“Your bones are strong.”

That was one of the observations Randy Wheeler, a representative from the Virginia Fire Services Board (VFSB), gave the Board of Supervisors during a March 25 presentation.

Wheeler was reporting on the state of the county’s emergency services. He told the supervisors and a room full of more than 70 paid and volunteer emergency services workers that the underpinning of the county’s emergency services, whether volunteer or paid, is sound. The county is undergoing an evolution of its services, not a crisis, he said.

Wheeler said overall the county is doing well with its emergency services in spite of recent issues that have made their way into the media. He applauded the county for its support of capital purchases and said the VFSB had never had supervisors involved in such a review before. Wheeler was impressed with the level of commitment, both from the county staff and from the volunteers, to fixing problems.

“What we’re talking about today is evolution,” Wheeler said. “The individual parts are pretty darned good. The system needs to match the underlying quality of its component parts.”

The findings and recommendations report, which is 47 pages long, strongly recommends a Director of Emergency Services but also advises better definition of the role.

The county’s own ordinance contradicts itself with regards to the authority of the director, the report states. This prospective Director of Emergency Services should be an excellent communicator and understand the importance of community and inclusiveness. The report also noted that there is no consensus about the role and responsibilities of two division chiefs within the paid department. “It is imperative that the paid staff have a clear leader,” Wheeler told the board.

The supervisors established an Emergency Services Department and hired a director in 2012, but the person left after a year fraught with criticism, low morale and difficult adjustments. The position has been vacant since June of last year.

Additionally, the report finds that the current Chiefs and Captains meetings, which have taken the role of the former Fire and Rescue Steering Team (FARST), are not adequate.

The VFSB recommends that the county establish a Fire and Rescue Association in lieu of the meetings and FARST. The Fire and Rescue Association would consist of a member from each volunteer fire department and rescue squad, a representative from the paid service (probably the director) and a provision for alternates. The new director and a representative chosen by the volunteers would co-chair the Fire and Rescue Association.

Once the Fire and Rescue Association is in place, that group would work with county officials to spearhead changes, including improved fire and rescue coordination and strategic planning, the report says. As a part of this planning, the county should seek out opportunities that would improve homeowners’ insurance ratings that would in turn lower rates and be of positive benefit to the citizens.

Other recommendations include:

• develop a program for volunteer fire and rescue personnel that focuses on management, prevention, operations and safety

• incentives for advanced training and higher education

• create a unified mission statement for emergency services as a whole

• develop standard administrative policies with an emphasis on accountability and job requirement clarifications.

• establish a system-wide Standards Operating Guidelines for emergency incidents. These guidelines would ensure that everyone is operating “from the same playbook at an incident”

• implement guidelines provided by the National Fire Protection Association regarding incidents

• enact and enforce the Statewide Prevention Code

• improve accounting practices with regard to county financial support

A future major capital purchase should be a “modern ladder truck,” Wheeler said. “You don’t have a modern ladder truck that could handle some of the incidents in larger, more complex buildings.”

He pointed out that he had passed new construction of tall buildings at Daleville Town Center on his way to the meeting. Ladder trucks that would reach the top levels are expensive; Roanoke City’s most recent purchase cost $1.2 million.

The report recommends better communications between all involved. “There are continuous mistrust and frustration issues between career and volunteer staff within the county’s fire and rescue,” the report reads. “The lack of personal and professional communications between the volunteers and career staff is affecting the application of fire and rescue activities in Botetourt County.”

The report placed the burden of conflict in the laps of the county administration and the Board of Supervisors. “The county must identify and resolve the breakdowns in communications and work tirelessly to educate all members,” the report notes.

But the report also said “volunteer personnel must understand that communications is a two-way process.” The report suggests a professional mediator should come in and assist with resolving existing concerns.

Recruitment of more volunteers is also stressed in the report. “According to the 2013 Virginia Fire Service Needs Assessment, Botetourt County reported that the present call volume warranted 28 additional personnel to sufficiently staff their stations,” the report says. In 2012, the county’s emergency service workers responded to 4,868 fire and emergency medical services calls, an average of 13 per day.

Wheeler said all parties need to “put the past behind you and move forward. Everyone needs to do that if you’re going to be truly successful.” He called it “hitting the reset button” and said that would be the only way the county administration, career staff and volunteers would be able to work together.

The supervisors accepted the report and, at the suggestion of Chairman Mac Scothorn, stood and applauded the many fire and rescue workers who were in the room.

“The Board of Supervisors is committed to the recommendations,” Scothorn said. To begin implementation, he appointed Fincastle District Representative Jack Leffel and Amsterdam District Representative Todd Dodson as a committee of two to work with county staff and “all stakeholders” and instructed them to work on a plan “to improve the fire and EMS system.”

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