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Votes

Treat Volunteers and Paid Staff Equally

The changes to the county's fire and rescue system likely will not be as drastic as those proposed by a consultant hired to design a model fire system for the county.

Some things will remain the same.

The 17 fire companies will continue to own their facilities. Volunteers will continue to volunteer; the county will continue to hire paid career staff to staff positions volunteers cannot fill; and the county and the fire companies will continue to purchase equipment for the firehouses, either together or individually.

Two major differences are yet to be determined: the role of the countywide fire chief and the funding source to pay for fire and rescue services.

"It looks like for the first time, many diverse communities were able to get together and decide how to proceed on a hybrid system that is part volunteer and part career," said Supervisor Jim Burton, chairman of the Finance and Government Services Committee.

The committee met with the Fire and Rescue Commission for a joint meeting Jan. 15, drawing a crowd of about 100 people who packed the county board room.

DOUG RAMBO, chairman of the Fire and Rescue Commission, provided the Finance and Government Services Committee with an assessment of a report compiled by consulting firm EMSSTAR Group, LLC. The consultant developed a suggested model system last year and detailed service levels for the system from a minimum to a high level of service, compared the county's current system to the model and outlined ways to implement the model.

Rambo presented in November some of the concerns volunteers and staff had with the model, including the role they would have and the cost and timing required to implement a new fire and rescue system. The Finance and Government Services Committee allowed Rambo to develop alternative solutions to the proposed model and present his recommendations to the committee at the January meeting.

"It's not necessarily about improving services. It's about ensuring we have the services there," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott York (R-At Large). "We need to make sure there is consistency throughout the system ... in training, equipment and policies."

Rambo organized 19 small work groups to review each of the attributes or suggestions for improved service outlined in the consultant's report. The work groups, which consist of members of the volunteer fire and rescue companies, staff from the Department of Fire and Rescue and other county staff, had a month to come up with their recommendations. Rambo highlighted the principal recommendations to present to the Finance and Government Services Committee.

THE WORK GROUPS recommended the county:

* Define the role of the proposed countywide fire chief as a chief operating officer and the Fire and Rescue Commission as a board of directors.

"There needs to be a chief who coordinates and operates the system day to day," Rambo said, adding that each of the firehouse chiefs would continue operating their firehouses at the local level. "You really don't have one person in charge today."

Rambo said the fire and rescue chiefs would be considered equal whether they were volunteer or paid. "A captain is a captain is a captain," he said. "We want our leaders to be interchangeable. We want a combined system."

* Provide volunteers and career staff with the same training opportunities and programs.

"I want to have more discussion on retention and some on recruitment of the volunteers," York said. "We are seeing an awful lot of folks that are leaving the system. While we are getting a lot of folks interested in volunteering, the system is staying stagnant."

Rambo said, "We need to make those folks understand their importance to the system."

* Establish a county grant program that would help volunteer companies purchase new equipment.

The current county policy states that when equipment is purchased with county funds, it belongs to the county, while company purchases mean the equipment belongs to the company and joint purchases create a joint ownership.

"What we're saying is, that works," Rambo said.

* Combine the use of grants, loans and volunteer funds to refurbish volunteer stations and, when needed, provide grants or help finance the building of new stations.

"We want to make it easy for the county to put the fire station in, but we want to keep the doors open for volunteers," Rambo said. "We want to be equal partners, [but] we're not looking to the county to be our Sugar Daddy."

A PROPOSED funding source for the fire and rescue system is creating one or several tax districts, as recommended by the work groups. Currently, the county provides funding for the system from real estate and property taxes. The county budgeted $6 million in funding for fiscal year 2001, Burton said. "There's a commitment that has to be made to provide a stable funding source for the volunteer system, because they aren't able to raise the money," he said.

Rambo said the work groups did not support implementing a fee-for-service system to help fund fire and rescue services. "We don't want them [Loudoun residents] to think about the bill. We want them to call 911 right away," Rambo said.

Following Rambo's presentation, the Finance and Government Services Committee opened up the meeting to public comment. One resident said, "I'm seeing more perpetuation of the current system," while another resident asked the Board of Supervisors to stop wasting taxpayers' money on the third of such studies and begin implementing some of the consultant's recommendations.

"Stop throwing away my money on these studies," said Leesburg resident Robert Dube. "The bottom line is the system serves us."

Another resident mentioned it taking one hour and 22 minutes before the word "service" was mentioned. "Please look at what services we provide to the community," he said.

Round Hill resident Fred Muller said the volunteer and career system is a hybrid system that needs to move away from polarizing career and volunteer staff. "We need to focus on the system as a whole," said Muller, a paramedic with the Hamilton Volunteer Rescue Squad. "I don't want to support a system focused on saving money. Let's focus on a system that make sense ... and manages the finances appropriately."

Sue Johnson, also of Round Hill, said, "We talk about equality between volunteer and career [staff]. Most of us, we run calls together," said Johnson, a volunteer for the Purcellville company. "Volunteers are just looking to continue to have a voice to the board, so you understand how hard we're working."

THE FIRE AND RESCUE Commission is scheduled to take a formal position on the recommendations at a meeting Jan. 21. The Finance and Government Services Committee included the issue on its agenda for the Jan. 22 meeting.

"The EMSSTAR report got us started. Their recommendations were fine with me if we had no other alternative. Now we have some alternatives it appears all parties can agree to," Burton said.

The Finance and Government Services Committee likely will recommend the Board of Supervisors adopt most of the recommendations presented at the meeting, Burton said. A recommendation regarding the makeup of the new commission likely will not be adopted, since the number of members to serve on the commission remains a subject of debate among current members, Burton said. The commission has eight members, while the work groups recommended four commissioners with two representing fire and rescue services and two representing Emergency Medical Services (EMS).

"The commission is too small. A quorum is three. It's too small for the large organization we have here," said a resident who spoke at the meeting.

The county may ask EMSSTAR to develop a service plan based on the recommendations under a spring 2002 deadline, Burton and York said. York said, by spring, he hopes the county will have a service plan in place that identifies the number of stations, equipment and manpower needed for the fire and rescue system.

"We were concerned at various points along the way, at the end of the day, we wouldn't have the service plan to look to," Rambo said. "If we listen to one another, we'll get to a good plan in the end. I'm hoping that's the road we're on."