A “Teeter-Tot­ter­ing” Vol­un­teer Sys­tem

Rappahannock News - - RAPPAHANNOCK SNAPSHOT - By Randy Rieland

This up­dates the Foothills Fo­rum/Rappahannock News three-part se­ries, “A Trou­bling Di­ag­no­sis,” pub­lished July 20, Aug. 3 and Aug. 17, 2017.

When it comes to its fire and res­cue ser­vice, Rappahannock County re­mains a rar­ity — it’s one of a very few coun­ties in Vir­ginia that re­lies solely on vol­un­teers to re­spond to emer­gen­cies.

Not hav­ing to pay EMTs and fire­fight­ers has clearly saved the county a lot of money. But de­pen­dence on vol­un­teers brings with it a hard re­al­ity – the abil­ity to pro­vide this crit­i­cal ser­vice hinges on the avail­abil­ity and com­mit­ment of peo­ple not be­ing com­pen­sated for an­swer­ing calls at all hours of the day and night.

And, as Rappahannock has evolved into more of a re­tire­ment com­mu­nity, the age of those re­spond­ing to emer­gen­cies con­tin­ues to rise. Ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent re­view, about a quar­ter of the 220 vol­un­teers on depart­ment ros­ters here are older than 60. Forty-six per­cent are at least 50.

More tellingly, those who re­spond most of­ten tend to be older. Roughly 28 per­cent of the vol­un­teers an­swered more than 10 per­cent of the calls last year, and 54 per­cent of them were 50 or older. The prospect of ac­tive and more ex­pe­ri­enced re­spon­ders aging out in the com­ing years con­tin­ues to worry the sys­tem’s lead­ers that Rappahannock may need to look at shift­ing to at least some paid emer­gency work­ers sooner rather than later.


The county took a step in that di­rec­tion in Fe­bru­ary 2018 when it signed an up­dated agree­ment with the seven in­de­pen­dent vol­un­teer fire and res­cue com­pa­nies in Rappahannock, the first one since 1998. To re­lieve some of the fund-rais­ing bur­den on vol­un­teers, the county agreed to fully cover op­er­a­tional costs of the fire and res­cue com­pa­nies. But while county of­fi­cials re­it­er­ated the com­mit­ment to an all-vol­un­teer ser­vice for as long as pos­si­ble, the agree­ment noted that it may “need to be sup­ple­mented by ca­reer fire, res­cue and emer­gency med­i­cal ser­vices em­ploy­ees in the fu­ture.”

No big sur­prise there, but the agree­ment also in­cludes guide­lines meant to serve as an early warn­ing sig­nal if vol­un­teer at­tri­tion starts to af­fect the qual­ity of ser­vice. It stip­u­lates a coun­ty­wide goal that 90 per­cent of the time, fire and res­cue com­pa­nies will re­spond within eight min­utes and are on the scene of an emer­gency within 25 min­utes. It also notes that they must be able to re­spond to two si­mul­ta­ne­ous events in the county and be able to ad­min­is­ter med­i­cal aid and trans­port vic­tims to the hos­pi­tal, if nec­es­sary.

So far, the vol­un­teer com­pa­nies have re­mained up to the task. Ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent re­sponse time re­port, cov­er­ing the first six months of 2018, both am­bu­lances and fire trucks got to the scene within 24 min­utes of emer­gency or fire calls 99 per­cent of the time.

But those sta­tis­tics can mask a pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tion. In some com­pa­nies, a hand­ful of vol­un­teers han­dle most of the calls, and if one or two call it quits, ser­vice could de­te­ri­o­rate quickly. That’s why Kevin Wil­liams, the county’s Emer­gency Ser­vices and Emer­gency Man­age­ment Co­or­di­na­tor since last May, wants to start track­ing more closely the re­sponse times of in­di­vid­ual com­pa­nies. That’s not re­quired by the agree­ment, but Wil­liams, a long­time vol­un­teer and of­fi­cer with the Ch­ester Gap com­pany, said, “I want to see if all the de­part­ments are meet­ing the stan­dard or if a depart­ment is pick­ing up the weight of other de­part­ments.”

There’s al­ready a “dual dis­patch” pol­icy for the Flint Hill Vol­un­teer Fire Depart­ment, which has found it­self short-handed as it strug­gles to re­cruit new vol­un­teers. When calls come in there, an­other com­pany – Wash­ing­ton, Amissville or Ch­ester Gap – is al­ways dis­patched with them.


Wil­liams thinks it’s time for the county to start pre­par­ing to make the tran­si­tion to paid re­spon­ders. “We’re be­hind the eight ball as far as plan­ning for it,” he said. “Work­ing on a plan doesn’t mean you’re go­ing to start switch­ing to paid. But we don’t even have a plan.

“Be­cause this is go­ing to come,” he added. “And when it does come, if we haven’t done any plan­ning, it’s go­ing to hit us like a dump truck. Tran­si­tion can take two or three years. You have to be very care­ful when you do this. You’d have to find the right peo­ple who will work with the vol­un­teers. If you bring in a per­son who was never a vol­un­teer or doesn’t like vol­un­teers, that’s never go­ing to work.

“The vol­un­teers we cur­rently have who run calls are do­ing an out­stand­ing job. But the worst thing from my per­spec­tive would be to keep kick­ing this can down the road. This is not some­thing we can keep kick­ing down the road.”

KEVIN WIL­LIAMS County Emer­gency Ser­vices and Emer­gency Man­age­ment Co­or­di­na­tor His big­gest con­cern:“Aging of the vol­un­teer sys­tem. We’re at the top of a cliff. We’re teeter-tot­ter­ing.” What makes him hope­ful:“Know­ing that our fire chiefs who have been in that po­si­tion for years have the same vi­sion that I do that we need to start plan­ning for a tran­si­tion.”

HAROLD BEEBOUT Chief of the Sper­ryville Vol­un­teer Res­cue Squad His big­gest con­cern:“Will there be enough younger peo­ple to take over as the older vol­un­teers re­tire or are un­able to con­tinue?” What makes him hope­ful:“The new young vol­un­teers in sev­eral com­pa­nies who have shown a strong in­ter­est by be­com­ing EMTs and fire­fight­ers. As long as they con­tinue their com­mit­ment, the need to sup­ple­ment vol­un­teers with paid staff may be post­poned.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.