The concerns of citizens living in southeastern Clarke County over fire and emergency medical services in the Shenandoah Farms Volunteer Fire Company (SFVFD) response coverage area were raised for the second time in less than a month when their local fire company failed to mount a response to a house fire dispatch call to Greenstone Lane on the evening of Thursday, February 10th.
“We had a lack of personnel to fight the fire that night, it’s as simple as that” said SFVFD Fire Chief Harlin “Buddy” Cook. “This is a very rural area and volunteers are sometimes hard to get ahold off.”
While SFVFD’s response failure was later covered by backup units from Enders Fire Company in Berryville, Boyce Fire Department and FEMA’s Mount Weather Fire Department, longer distances driven by secondary backup fire companies in response to a primary company’s absence means that fires and medical emergencies take longer to receive assistance.
According to Google maps, Greenstone Lane is located approximately seven miles from SFVFD’s Howellsville Road location. Enders Fire Company is located fourteen miles from Greenstone Lane while both Boyce and Mount Weather are eleven miles distant.
Adding extra minutes to a response can be critical in any assistance call, especially in the event of a medical emergency.
Chief Cook says that SFVFD currently is unable to respond to approximately 25% of the calls that his company receives and that the majority of the missed calls are medical emergencies.
According to John H. Enders Fire & Rescue Chief Harold Rohde, Thursday night’s house fire dispatch was later determined to be a faulty house furnace. It is not known whether injuries resulted from the event or the extent of any damage to the structure.
Thursday night’s missed call was at least the second in recent weeks for SFVFD. On January 19th, 2011, a structure fire at 85 Shenandoah River Lane, on the border between Clarke and Warren Counties, resulted in the complete destruction of a home only a short distance from the SFVFD station. While SFVFD did respond to the Shenandoah River Lane fire, equipment failure rendered the company unable to fight the fire.
“Right now they’ve got some problems with their fire company” said Clarke County Supervisor John Staelin (Millwood) referring to the Shenandoah Farms fire company. “While the county does have a dispatch protocol that sends multiple fire companies to emergency calls we’d like to see SFVFD be as successful as possible. They fill an important hole in that service area.”
But in order to effective, Chief Harlin believes that the solution to issues facing his fire department is clear.
“My bottom line is that we have to have paid, career staff people to man the fire station around the clock” Harlin said. “I don’t know where the funding for this will come from so we have to do the best we can with what we have to work with. But I can’t emphasize the need for paid, career firefighters enough.”
Harlin suggested that the key to finding a funding solution, at least for SFVFD, may be a joint budget deal hammered out between the two counties that SFVFD serves.
“Warren County and Clarke County may have to get together and talk about sharing the cost for career staff” Harlin said. “I think that is what it is going to take to truly satisfy people in our area.”
According to John Staelin, approximately 450 homes and around 900 people are covered by SFVFD’s first response coverage area, roughly six percent of Clarke’s 14,000+ population.
Warren County, like other surrounding jurisdictions including Frederick and Loudoun counties, has transitioned its previously all-volunteer fire department system into a blend of paid career staff and volunteers. Even so, Supervisor Staelin said that while Clarke County is willing to work with Warren County on how to do things better, funding career fighting staff isn’t presently an option.
“Warren County has an ordinance that places SFVFD under the direct control of the Warren County fire chief because sixty-five to seventy percent of the SFVFD fire calls are in Warren County” Staelin said. “If Warren County wants to staff the SFVFD facility we’d be glad to chat with them. But we can’t afford to staff full-time firefighters 24/7 when SFVFD only serves five to six percent of our population unless we did it for all of the county’s fire departments. It wouldn’t be fair to the rest of our citizens.”
Both Staelin and Harlin said that recent changes to the county’s dispatch procedures may help in coordinating available firefighting resources when specific firehouses are unmanned. Harlin said that fire companies now alert Clarke County dispatchers when firefighters are in the station so that the personnel can be immediately dispatched on calls in understaffed areas.
Staelin also suggested that part of the solution may lie in changing the county reporting structure SFVFD.
“SFVFD is officially a Warren County Fire Station. The Warren County fire chief is responsible for running background checks on new members, providing technical advice and inspecting their equipment” Staelin said. “There has been some discussion about changing SFVFD’s dispatch to Warren County since the vast majority of calls are in their jurisdiction.”
Warren County Fire Chief Richard Mabie did not immediately respond to an email message requesting comment.
Staelin said that county taxpayers contribute $30K annually to each of Clarke County’s fire companies, except Enders Fire Company which receives $45K annually.
“The money that the county provides to each fire company is strictly a donation to help defray expenses” Staelin said. “The county doesn’t run the individual fire companies.”
Despite its current difficulties, Staelin said that Shenandoah Farms Volunteer Fire Company was well funded.
“They receive more money than our other fire companies” Staelin pointed out. “They get funding from both Clarke and Warren counties.”