Isle of Wight fire and rescue volunteers worried about paid replacements

By Diana McFarland

News editor

Actions taken by Isle of Wight officials over the past several years have left some fire and rescue volunteers worried that the county is trying to eliminate the volunteer system and replace it with a single county-administered department staffed by paid employees.

Even if that’s not true, that perception could be enough to negatively impact volunteer recruiting and retention, said Windsor Supervisor Joel Acree, who prior to getting elected to the Board of Supervisors last fall, served for many years as chief for the Carrollton Volunteer Fire Department.

Isle of Wight Volunteer Rescue Squad Chief Brian Carroll said that perception is out there and the county is not as supportive of the volunteers as it could be.

The sense that the county doesn’t respect the volunteers, who take their commitment to serve their neighbors without compensation seriously, was an oft-repeated complaint over the past two years.

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Some past actions that have fostered the fear of losing the volunteer system include the county’s facilities use agreement, misrepresenting volunteer service hours, increasing the size of the Department of Emergency Services and a unionization move by paid staff.

Isle of Wight Board of Supervisors Chairman Rex Alphin said that perception probably arose because of some initiatives that were put in place, but it was not the intention of the past board, or the current board, to do away with the volunteers.

“I think we have a good relationship now and am looking forward to working with them in the future,” he said.

Isle of Wight has a strong tradition of fire and rescue volunteers who man seven autonomous non-profit organizations that manage their businesses and operations with their own boards of directors and chiefs.  

Some stations date back more than half a century and are organizations that have nurtured generations of firefighters and medics.

Alphin said the volunteers are a tremendous part of the community and are dedicated and passionate about an avocation that calls them out at all hours of the day and night.

“They see it as a calling,” he said, adding that most stations become like families, develop a “grand camaraderie,” and a big part of small communities.

The grumbling began in 2012 when the Board of Supervisors formed a fire and rescue task force to begin standardizing how each station reported revenue and expenses.

The impetus for the task force came after the Board decided to fully fund the fire and rescue stations rather than have them rely on politics and fundraising to cover operational expenses. In fiscal 2013, those contributions totaled about $1.1 million.

At the same time, the quarterly reporting standards varied widely between stations, with some providing the county a detailed account of expenditures and others providing only a bare outline.

But it was the facilities use agreement, and at the time, a vehicle titling agreement, introduced in the spring of 2014 under a strict timeline and penalties for not cooperating, that took that concern to a new level.

Former Isle of Wight County Administrator Anne Seward touted the agreements as a way to equalize maintenance and standardize operations at the county-owned stations, and at the same time, give the county title to vehicles that, in many cases, were purchased by Isle of Wight but actually owned by the stations.

Seward also said at the time that it was a way for Isle of Wight to be accountable for the monetary contributions to the volunteer agencies.

The volunteers successfully opposed the vehicle titling policy and the Board of Supervisors agreed to begin requiring county ownership only of vehicles purchased by the county after 2014.

Prior to the public launch of the FUA and vehicle titling agreements, former Emergency Services Chief Rusty Chase abruptly retired.

The facilities use agreement resulted in a firestorm of resistance and criticism by the Carrollton and Windsor volunteer fire stations, which refused for more than a year to sign the FUA.

Carrollton and Windsor argued that the agreement did not take into consideration the unique history of their stations and foisted too much control by the county over the facilities. Carrollton was particularly upset that its members had raised a significant amount of the money and provided volunteer labor to expand that organization’s station. Other stations, notably Isle of Wight Rescue and Smithfield, recently had new buildings built and paid for by Isle of Wight County, and more readily signed the agreements.

Eventually the two sides agreed on a revised FUA, which was adopted by the other five stations.

On the advice of Isle of Wight County’s then-new Emergency Services Chief, Jeff Terwilliger, the Board of Supervisors in early 2015 adopted a new 56-hour work week in an effort to reduce the part-time EMS roster, switch to a more traditional schedule and save money. Terwilliger said the paid roster, which at the time numbered about 100 individuals, was too unwieldy to manage. Besides, those who work part-time elsewhere, but volunteer in Isle of Wight, may have divided loyalties in the case of a major event, such as a hurricane, Terwilliger and other county staff said during a Board fire and rescue committee meeting.  

Carroll said the part-time system had worked well for years and was an effective tool for filling staffing needs. As a bonus, the part-time staffers were often full-time elsewhere and were already trained, he said.  

Whatever the county’s intent with respect to the volunteers, the budget for the county’s emergency services staff has grown dramatically.

The budget for the Isle of Wight Department of Emergency Services increased from $1.2 million in fiscal 2013 to $3.8 million for fiscal 2016 — a 200 percent increase. The majority of the increase is due to salaries, wages and benefits.

Contributions to the volunteer fire and rescue agencies have remained flat during that same time period.

Other actions, such as suggesting that all the volunteer agencies report under one agency number, also raised the suspicions of some, but the idea was abandoned. The Board of Supervisors last year also ordered a fire and EMS study by the Virginia Department of Fire Services, which looks at operations and makes recommendations for improvement. The results of that study are still pending.

Recently, it came to light that reports furnished to the Board of Supervisors, and available to the public online, failed to fully include the volunteers contribution to calls, making it appear as though paid personnel are doing the bulk of the work, and thus adding the suspicion by volunteers that the county wants an all-paid system.

Lastly, fire and rescue volunteers learned the county’s full-time paid staff had joined a national union. While some don’t believe it’s an issue, other volunteers are concerned it could interfere with service because the union forbids volunteering. According to literature issued by the union, it would be a violation of union regulations for a paid firefighter who is a union member to work as a volunteer anywhere. A number of Isle of Wight’s volunteers are paid firefighters in other localities and some are presumably union members.

Carroll said it would cost Isle of Wight many millions of dollars to switch from a volunteer system to a fully paid and unified department.

Isle of Wight Acting County Administrator Don Robertson said last year that putting all fire and rescue agencies under the county is not something that has been discussed.

The FUA was a campaign issue last fall, and anger over it is believed to have been a factor in election of three new supervisors. Seward resigned after the election.

Carroll said the difference in philosophy may be best reflected by the fact that Isle of Wight officials have rejected out of hand a proposed mission statement drawn up by the Isle of Wight Volunteer Rescue Squad for the county’s department of emergency services.

Isle of Wight County puts the emphasis jointly on volunteers and career staff, while the IWVRS puts the importance on maintaining a volunteer-based system. (See related story).

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