Grice demands fire department information

Published 6:25 pm Tuesday, April 10, 2018

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

Tensions over Isle of Wight County’s system of providing fire and rescue services seem to have resurfaced after lying dormant for a few years. 

Smithfield District Supervisor Dick Grice declared an Aug. 2 work session as “the line in the sand” concerning information he has requested about Isle of Wight County fire and rescue organizations. 

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Grice appears to have the support of Newport District Supervisor William McCarty and Windsor Supervisor Joel Acree, who said things were not as “rosy” as they seem. McCarty said there was nothing “malicious” about Grice’s requests. 

During a work session last week, Grice, in a lengthy statement, asked for an organizational structure for the county’s paid and volunteer fire and rescue organizations, a baseline of its facilities, training, compensation and incentive programs, functional responsibilities and response areas. 

Grice said he has been requesting this information for more than two years, to no avail. 

“August. That’s the line in the sand,” said Grice. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

In an interview Monday, Isle of Wight County Administrator Randy Keaton pointed to a Feb. 1 work session where a lengthy presentation was made by Isle of Wight Director of Emergency Services Jeff Terwilliger, as well as input from leaders of the county’s volunteer organizations. The discussion, which lasted about an hour, covered training, credentials, how vehicles are purchased and outfitted, was well as ways the county could improve recruiting and retention as well as services.  

Keaton said the presentation was in response to Grice’s informational requests.

Grice dismissed that presentation as “kumbaya” during his April 4 statement.  

Isle of Wight Assistant County Administrator Don Robertson said Monday that staff saw that presentation as a positive sign that things are headed in the right direction. 

Keaton said that for two years, he and county staff have met with fire and rescue chiefs to discuss budget needs, and one result was a new way of funding apparatus repairs designed to prevent the volunteer organizations from being socked by large, unexpected bills. Keaton said the emergency services department recently enlisted the help of an outside contractor to assist in processing backed up ambulance fees, and the savings, estimated at more than $500,000, were being used to purchase new ambulances. 

Grice alluded to other concerns in his statement last week. 

“We are not positioned economically, nor should there be any effort by anyone in leadership position to undermine our volunteer programs. At the same time, we need to ensure that citizens are provided with a properly equipped and trained fire and EMS personnel, voluntary and full time, needed for these services,” he said, adding that so far, the director of emergency services has not provided that information. 

Board Chairman Rudolph Jefferson said he hasn’t seen anyone trying to erode the volunteer base in the county. Jefferson is a member of the Rushmere Volunteer Fire Department.

“It’s a great asset and will be here for years and years,” he said. 

Isle of Wight County has a paid emergency services department as well as seven volunteer fire and rescue organizations. The volunteer agencies are stand-alone organizations, some dating back many decades, but do receive significant contributions from Isle of Wight County. 

When it comes to training and credentials, Keaton said one problem is that, unlike emergency medical services, the state does not have minimum standards for firefighters.

As a result, each volunteer fire department has its own system, Keaton said. 

During the February presentation, Isle of Wight County Volunteer Rescue Squad Chief Brian Carroll suggested that one way to increase recruitment and retention was to enact a volunteer retirement system, which already exists in the state.  

During that February meeting, training, credentials, background checks and membership requirements were also discussed. 

Acree said Thursday that the county’s fire and rescue association was asked to come up with a standard that could be used here to provide incentives for volunteer recruitment and retention. Acree said he wants the county to make that into policy. 

Before being elected supervisor, Acree served as a volunteer firefighter with the Carrollton Volunteer Fire Department for more than 30 years, and for many of those as its chief. He currently serves as battalion chief for York County Fire and Life Safety.  

Grice stated that this is the last year he is going to vote on a budget without receiving his requested information.  

In a phone conversation Monday, Grice said that the information request is not designed to undermine or scare the volunteer fire and rescue organizations.

“It should not strike fear in the volunteers. I’m one of their biggest advocates,” he said, adding that he doesn’t know how the operation — the separate volunteer organizations and emergency services department — works as a whole. 

Grice wants to know if enough is being spent and what each fire and rescue organization should be equipped with and what sort of training should be occurring. 

Grice didn’t know if the volunteers would perceive this informational request as the county taking over the organization, but that’s not the intent, he said.

The Isle of Wight County Emergency Services Department issues an annual report that includes the names of all station chiefs, what stations are augmented with paid staff from Isle of Wight and how many individuals are located in the service range of each station, among other information.  

Robertson said Monday that equipment needs have long been based on a 1999 study, and according to its assessment, Isle of Wight has more apparatus than was stipulated in that study. 

Isle of Wight is also moving toward using a central purchasing model for equipment because it can save money, Robertson said. 

As for August, staff plans to present standards for training and minimum requirements for fire and rescue personnel, Robertson said, but added that the Board has to adopt policies to enact those measures. 

The proposed fiscal 2019 budget calls for $487,809 for the county’s Emergency Services office, up 8 percent from last year’s adopted budget. The proposed fiscal 2019 fire and rescue response budget, which includes contributions to the county’s seven volunteer fire and rescue organizations is $3.9 million — which has remained flat over the past two years. 

Grice, McCarty and Acree were elected in November 2015 near the end of an acrimonious dispute over a proposed facilities use agreement concerning fire and rescue buildings, which are owned by Isle of Wight County. Terwilliger was hired earlier that year by former county administrator Anne Seward, who initiated the controversial facilities use agreement in 2014. The facilities use agreement spurred bitter feelings among some volunteers and the issue nearly went to court. Seward resigned after Grice, McCarty and Acree were elected. 

Keaton came on board as county administrator in September 2016. {/mprestriction}