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.”