A fire on Shenandoah River Lane last week which consumed a home while local fire companies were hampered by equipment and logistical problems has caused an outpouring of concern from residents about Clarke County’s emergency response preparedness and has raised questions of whether residents in rural sections of the county are at risk when volunteer emergency service personnel are not available to respond to calls.
“I was told that I needed to read all the comments that had been posted here” said Boyce Fire Company 4 lieutenant Jeff Gray, referring to the Clarke Daily News postings associated with the original story about the fire. “I am not at all shocked or surprised by what I have read. Anytime there is a tragedy like this the community is going to question what happened and what went wrong. Every station has a call they would like to forget. All of us have run a call that we wish would have gone differently. Not one of us has a spotless record of responses to the calls we receive.”
According to Shenandoah Farms Volunteer Fire Department Chief Harlin “Buddy” Cook, plenty of things went wrong on the afternoon of January 19th, 2011, when his department responded to a structure fire at 85 Shenandoah River Lane located only minutes from the SFVFD station.
Cook said that initially there was also a short delay in reaching the fire because no fire personnel were at the station when the 911 dispatch came in. However, once SFVFD reached the fire additional problems occurred.
According to Cook, SFVFD’s Wagon 6 pump truck immediately experienced a pump failure upon reaching the fire site. “The pump blew the minute we got there” he said.
Although Wagon 6’s pump failed to function, a Boyce fire truck arrived at the scene approximately six to seven minutes after the Wagon 6 pump failure Cook said. Unfortunately the Boyce crew was able to operate for only a short while before running out of water due to delays in establishing a water supply source by SFVFD. The water shortage occurred, Cook said, because SFVFD’s water source, a retention pond located near the station, is frozen forcing the company to obtain water from other sources like the Shenandoah River.
The combination of the Wagon 6 pump failure and the lack of water to fight the fire resulted in house being completely destroyed.
“The house was pretty well engulfed by the time that we got there” Cook said. “Part of the problem was that the homeowner tried to put out the fire with a garden hose and delayed making the 911 call.”
The Shenandoah River Lane fire episode appears to have been exacerbated by a shortage of manpower at the SFVFD station that afternoon. Since the incident, many citizens have questioned Clarke County’s reliance on volunteer emergency responders throughout the county. Volunteer firefighters have responded by pointing out that paid staff approach to ensuring firefighters are always available at all fire stations would mean tax increases.
“We have limited resources and limited manpower with which to respond to the emergencies” Boyce fire department’s Jeff Gray said. “Every station receives an annual stipend from the county which they use to help with their operating budget. The truth is that it comes nowhere close to matching the expenses needed by any of the four stations. The vast majority of our funds come from fundraisers, fund drives, and donations. All of us are feeling the strain of the current economic situation.”
Chief Buddy Cook agreed.
“Shenandoah Farms and Blue Ridge fire companies are the only two companies in Clarke County with no paid career staff” Cook said. In contrast, Cook said that Warren County has five stations staffed 24 hours a day with career firefighters. “Clarke County taxpayers are entitled to emergency services. But when Warren County put paid career staff in their fire stations taxes went up.”
There is little debate that Clarke County residents are sometimes forced to wait for help when volunteer fire stations are not manned. Cook said that SFVFD presently is only able to respond to about 75% of the calls that it receives. The 25% of missed calls are primarily emergency medical service calls according to Cook. Despite the 25% no-response rate, Cook said that he doesn’t believe that Clarke County has reached the point of adopting a paid career fire fighter approach.
“Clarke County isn’t as big as Warren County and they run about twice as many calls as Clarke County does” Cook said. “There’s also not as much industry in Clarke as in Warren County. I don’t think that we’re at a point yet where we need to pay for career fire fighters. We’re saving the taxpayers a lot of money the way we’re doing it now.”
Boyce’s lieutenant Gray said that during weekdays the Boyce fire department has two fire/medics on duty paid by Clarke County Emergency Services. On weekends there is one fire/medic provided by CCES. SFVFD, which serves both Clarke County and Warren County, receives financial support from both jurisdictions but has no paid staff. Even so, Cook said that there currently is no formal mutual aid agreement between Clarke and Warren counties.
“There should be a mutual aid agreement between the two counties but it hasn’t been established yet” Cook said. “Right now the on-scene commander has to request assistance from Warren County before they will respond to an incident.”
When asked why a formal mutual aid agreement between Clarke and Warren County was not in place, County Administrator David Ash, who is also Clarke County’s Emergency Services Coordinator, expressed surprise that SFVFD did not have a mutual aid agreement with Warren County. Ash said that it was his understanding that each individual fire company was responsible for its own mutual aid agreements and was unaware that no agreement was in place with Warren County.
While a mutual aid agreement with Warren County would provide immediate positive coverage benefits to residents in southern sections of Clarke County, the lack of Clarke County firefighters, either volunteer or paid, still needs to be addressed. Boyce firefighter Gray links the decline in firefighter volunteers, in part, to an overall decline by citizens toward community service. “The urge of the community to volunteer their time is not what it used to be. The numbers of members at all of our stations is down” Gray said. “The feeling of giving something for nothing is replaced by the feeling of â€˜What do I receive?’”
“I am extremely proud to be a part of the Clarke County Fire and Rescue Association” Gray said. “We provide the absolute best service we can provide to our community with resources we have.”
I know many of the members at Shenandoah Farms. They are good people and should be proud of keeping their station together with the troubles they are experiencing. Buddy should be commended for stepping up and trying to save a company in turmoil.
“Again, Wednesday was an absolute tragedy” Gray said. “We all hang our heads a little lower when something like this happens. But instead of thinking of what should have been done, what can we do to keep this from happening again? My condolences go to the family who lost their home. My heart goes out to them.”