A “Teeter-Tottering” Volunteer System
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.”