Warren County to Take Over Management of Shenandoah Farms Fire Department

After weathering months of community criticism that has included complaints about poor responsiveness to fire and rescue calls, poorly maintained equipment, a criminal investigation by the Virginia State Police and review by the Clarke County Commonweatlh’s Attorney, the Shenandoah Farms Volunteer Fire Department may finally be back on the path to reclaiming its role as a reliable emergency management resource for citizens living in southeastern Clarke County and northeastern Warren County.

On Monday the Clarke County Board of Supervisors signed a letter of agreement with the Warren County Board of Supervisors which places day-to-day operational and budgetary oversight of SFVFD under the direct oversight of Warren County’s full-time fire chief.

“Warren County has agreed to administer and take oversight of the funding provided to SFVFD by both counties,” Clarke County Administrator David Ash told the Clarke Supervisors. “Most of SFVFD calls originate from Warren County but the station physically sits in Clarke County so it makes sense for Warren County to do this. I think that the agreement will ensure that Clarke County and Warren County are both on the same page in terms of oversight.”

SFVFD, which is physically located in Clarke County on Howellsville Road, is geographically located less than one-quarter mile from Warren County. Although the fire company responds to many emergency calls originating in Clarke County, its primary service area is the Shenandoah Farms subdivision – located mostly within Warren County – and the Blue Mountain subdivision – located entirely within Warren County.

After a 2011 investigation by the Virginia State Police identified a number of questionable financial transactions by SFVFD officials, Warren County assumed the responsibility for the financial management of SFVFD’s publicly-donated income. Monday’s agreement formally transfers that managerial oversight from Clarke to Warren County. Warren County will now also assume responsibilities for the radio, telephone, broadband, internet and other communications dispatching of SFVFD’s fire and medical equipment and personnel for the purpose of responding to fire and emergency medical incidents.

During discussion of the impacts, if any, that the management transfer will have on the safety of Clarke County citizens, Supervsor Barbara Byrd (Russell) raised the question of how Clarke County will respond if SFVFD fails to respond to the new management oversight.

“What if Warren County is not satisfied with improvements at SFVFD and the funding for the fire company goes away?” Byrd asked.

“Boyce Fire Company and Mount Weather Fire Company currently respond to many calls in the area,” replied Administrator Ash. “Warren County has a bigger incentive for making the arrangement work because of the geography that has to be covered.”

Either Clarke County or Warren County can terminate the agreement upon 120 days notice to the other jurisdiction.

The agreement, which has already be signed by SFVFD Chief Don Hoover, stipulates that Warren County’s Fire Chief will have unrestricted access to all books, ledgers, accounts records, logs, notebooks, and any other financial, organizational, historical and operational records and documents of SFVFD.

While the new operating agreement provides a framework that may improve SFVFD’s management situation, the operational details of ensuring that emergency assistance actually reaches citizens in a timely manner must still be worked out. The plan calls for Warren County’s fire and rescue dispatch center to assume responsibility for dispatching of SFVFD personnel and equipment, a task formerly performed by Clarke County’s emergency management center.

The agreement calls for Warren County to fully integrate SFVFD into its E-911 and dispatch hardware, software and protocols.

“I’m comfortable that we can ensure that calls that come into our emergency center are transferred to Warren County very quickly,” said Clarke County Sheriff Tony Roper who also participated in the discussion. “Working out those procedures still needs to be done but it will be a top priority for my staff.”

House Fire on Harry Byrd Highway Displaces Residents

Officials closed one westbound lane of Route 7 - Photo credit Pam Lettie

A fire that broke out Sunday morning severely damaged a Clarke County home and injured two firefighters.

The incident occurred at approximately 10:30 a.m. Crews from Blue Ridge and Enders Fire Companies were dispatched to a home located in the 3800 block of Harry Byrd Highway and upon arrival found a fire on the back side of residence. Firefighter immediately went to work to knock down the flames and additional crews were called in from Boyce,  and Mt Weather as well  as companies from Loudoun and Jefferson Counties.

One westbound lane of Route 7 was closed to traffic while crews worked to extinguish the fire and secure the scene.

Photo credit Pam Lettie

Chief Jason Burns from Blue Ridge Fire Company said that the house suffered fire damage at the rear of the structure as well as heat and smoke damage throughout the interior of the home. The house was deemed uninhabitable as a result of the fire and Red Cross officials were on scene to render assistance to the residents.

Two fire fighters from Enders Fire Company were injured during the incident when they fell through the ceiling of the home. They were working in the attic of the structure when the ceiling gave way. Both individuals were treated on the scene and released.

The cause of the fire has not been determined.

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Video: Roof Fire at Berryville Graphics

Fire and rescue units from around the area responded to a roof fire at Berryville Graphics in Berryville, Virginia today. The fire sent hundreds of employees into the plant parking lot as firefighters searched the building for the source of smoke coming from the roof.

Photo Edward Leonard

A commercial fire alarm at Berryville Graphics, located at 25 Jack Enders Boulevard, led to the discovery of a rooftop fire at the rear of the building. Fire and Rescue personnel from Clarke and Front Royal entered the building to ensure the fire was contained to the exterior.

Crews prepare to pump water onto the roof of Berryville Graphics - Photo Edward Leonard

Winchester, Jefferson, Frederick, and Loudoun county engine companies, as well as EMS Companies 1 and 4 were called to assist at around 12:20 pm.

Upon examining the rooftop Clarke and Front Royal firefighters located a smoldering area. Firefighters lifted material on the roof before locating the sources of fire.

Staff investigate the source of a fire at Berryville Graphics - Photo Edward Leonard

As of 12:35 additional manpower and materials were still needed to lift the “membrane” type material to search for additional smoldering spots or flare-ups.  At 12:50 pm the interior of the building was considered safe for employees to re-enter.

Meanwhile, fire and safety personnel continued to work on the exterior rooftop.

Personnel on the scene said that crews inside the plant were covering the plant’s printing presses and other machinery with plastic to prevent damage before water crews on the roof began spraying water to put out the smoldering fire.

An employee who had evacuated into the parking area reported seeing “black billowing smoke” in the center of the building when the fire alarm sounded. Another employee said that a new fire alarm system had been installed in the plant last week.

“It looks like the new alarm system works great,” the employee said.

There were no reports of injuries at the scene of the fire as of 1:00pm. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Don’t Let Some Turkey Ruin Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is almost upon us and as the days leading up to the big event fill with things that need to be done a recent trend indicates that safety should be high on our to do lists.

Thanksgiving Day has become one of the busiest days of the year for fire departments across the country thanks to the emergence of deep-fried turkey as a go-to option for Thanksgiving tables. Grease fires from turkey pots have led to a huge spike in home fires and injuries. More property damage and lives are lost in residential structure fires on Thanksgiving Day than any other day of the year. An estimated 2,000 Thanksgiving Day fires in residential buildings are reported to U.S. fire department each year and cause an estimated average of 5 deaths, 25 injuries, and $121 million in property loss.

The use of turkey fryers by consumers can lead to devastating burns and injuries as well as destruction of property. The following safe cooking tips can help to make your holiday safer:

  • Always use cooking equipment tested and approved by a recognized testing facility.
  • Stay in the kitchen when you are frying or grilling food. If you leave the kitchen, turn off the stove.
  • Keep anything that can catch fire–potholders, towels, or curtains away from the stove top.
  • Have a “kid-free zone” of at least three feet around the stove.
  • Wear short, close fitting or tightly rolled sleeves when cooking.
  • Always keep an oven mitt and lid nearby when cooking.
  • When placing the turkey into the oven or turkey fryer, be extremely careful.

If having a fried turkey is a must for Thanksgiving, consider purchasing a fried, cooked turkey from a commercial source.  Supermarkets and restaurants accept orders for fried turkeys during the holiday season.

So don’t take safety lightly when cooking your bird in a pot of boiling oil. Even William Shatner (aka Captain Kirk) had a run in with a deep fried turkey. He turned his mishap into a Public Service Announcement to help curb the number of incidents and keep people safe on Thanksgiving.

Enjoy the PSA video below and have a safe and happy Thanksgiving.

 

 

Shen Farms Fire Company Blasted in County Report

Warren County authorities released a formal report on Monday detailing the county’s forensic investigation into allegations of theft, credit card fraud and witness intimidation at the Shenandoah Farms Volunteer Fire Department (SFVFD) earlier this year. The report chronicles thousands of dollars in stolen money from the company, altered accounting records, stolen equipment, replacement of a personal vehicle windshield charged to the fire department and a bullet riddled car and house after a former board member of the company attempted to go public with concerns about the department at a public meeting.

The forensic audit report was released by Warren County’s attorney Blair Mitchell on October 17 and includes a series of findings based on a six-month long investigation into activities at the Shenandoah Farms Volunteer Fire Department.

SFVFD serves both Clarke and Warren County and is funded, in part, with Clarke County tax money.

Mitchell confirms in the report that neither the Virginia State Police nor Clarke County Commonwealth Attorney Suni Perka have chosen to bring charges against anyone associated with the report findings at this time.

In September, and before the report finding were made public, Perka said in a press release that after reviewing the Warren County report her office had decided not to press charges in the matter.

“After review of this matter, I have concluded, that to avoid the appearance of impropriety and to safeguard their property SFVFD should take appropriate measures to improve its accounting and operational practices, but that no criminal charges would result from this audit,” Perka said in a press release.

Reached by email on Thursday Perka, declined to make any further comment on the matter now that the report has been released to the public.

To view a full copy of Warren County’s report click here: Warren County SFVFD Investigation Final Report

Much of Mitchell’s report is based on a forensic investigation of SFVFD performed by Bill Barrett, a certified public accountant based in Richmond, Virginia. In the report, however, Barrett mentions that his investigation was compromised from the start because members of the SFVFD were notified of his pending investigation three weeks prior to the commencement of Barrett’s work.

“On the morning of May 23rd, I met with the Warren County Administrative Officers to clarify the scope of this forensic audit,” Barrett said in the report. “At this meeting, I was informed that three weeks prior, the Fire Department had been inadvertently informed that a forensic accounting investigation would take place.”

Barrett goes on to say that a forensic accounting investigation is meant to analyze financial records “as they are.” While the report does not specify how SFVFD became aware of the pending investigation, the result of the leaked information became quickly apparent once Barrett began reviewing the fire company’s electronic accounting records.

Barrett said that in 2011 alone he identified more than 110 accounting transactions that had been altered in SFVFD’s accounting program and 15+ more transactions the day after Barrett completed his May 29th onsite investigation.

Barrett’s investigation, which included interviews with the SFVFD Fire Chief Buddy Harlan, Warren County Fire Chief Richard Mabie, SFVFD’s president, treasurer, secretary, as well as a Clarke County police detective, revealed an extraordinary laundry list of “probable fraudulent transactions” which include:

–          Theft of $2,000 from a safe at SFVFD

–          Missing diving gear valued at $4,800

–          Believed retaliation against a former SFVFD board member whose house and vehicle were “riddled” with gunshots after he voiced concerns of questionable SFVFD practices at a Board of Supervisors meeting

Reached by email on Thursday, a Clarke County detective involved with the investigation confirmed that many members/former members of SFVFD requested anonymity, “because they feared retaliation or had been victims of incidents they believed were retaliatory.” The Clarke County detective also confirmed the incident regarding gunshots fired into the home and vehicle of the former SFVFD board member.

“I did confirm with Warren County regarding an incident at the [family name redacted] and asked them for extra patrols as the [family name redacted] believed the incident stemmed from him talking to me about the SFVFD.”

Clarke County Sheriff Tony Roper said that while his department played a role in the SFVFD investigation, the bulk of the investigation was handled by the Virginia State Police.

“Our investigation was limited to a possible larceny of gasoline and money stolen from a safe,” Roper said on Thursday. “We did not make an arrest in the case because scores of people had access to the fire department’s gasoline and the controls in place were such a mess. Short of a confession it wasn’t possible to make an arrest.”

Barrett’s findings of probable fraudulent activities also describes many instances department funds used for personal gain including questionable credit card activities, gift card purchases as well as a member who drafted a $296 check from the SFVFD checkbook to pay for the replacement of the windshield in her personal automobile.

The report says that although several SFVFD members said that the member was instructed to pay back the misappropriated money and “was reprimanded for her actions” other members said that the board had, in fact, approved the payment.

Barrett’s investigation ultimately found no authorization in the SFVFD board minutes allowing the windshield expenditure.

Barrett also cites other activities that he recommended for additional investigation including questionable accounting practices related to receiving large amounts of cash from Bingo Night proceeds, altered accounting transactions related to missing receipts, manually deleted vendor history records for certain vendors, and questionable audit trail transactions.

For example, Barrett described a SFVFD Banquet Party that generated $105 in revenue from 21 attendees but had a food cost of $1,317.

“Over-purchasing for an event would leave items to be taken by a member for personal use,” Barrett hypothesized in the report.

Barrett concludes the report with nineteen specific recommendations for gaining better control of SFVFD finances and also recommends that both Clarke and Warren County suspend further payments to SFVFD  until “public trust with the Company’s integrity of management and operations are restored.”

At a candidate’s forum held on Thursday night Clarke County Supervisor David Weiss (Buckmarsh) that he was very frustrated that the Commonwealth Attorney’s office had chosen not to take any action in the case.

“I can’t disagree with the decision because she has all of the facts and knows the law better than a farmer does,” Weiss said. “I saw the report and I would have thought you could have done it. It’s very disappointing that we can’t get more action on it because of the money that is gone and the public trust that has been broken.”

Asked if Clarke County will continue to provide funding to Shenandoah Farms Volunteer Fire Department Weiss said that the County is working out a system by which any money provided for the fire department will be given to a third party rather than directly to SFVFD.

According to the Clarke County Joint Administrative Services department, Clarke County funded Shenandoah Farms Volunteer Fire Department $50K in 2009, $50K in 2010, $38K in 2011 and has not provided any funding so far in fiscal year 2012 ( Clarke County’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30).