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Racing Against Time and $30 Million

Budget plays role in emergency response's greatest obstacle.

Shooting flames and critical injuries are not Loudoun County Fire & Rescue’s greatest enemy.

“Our enemy in terms of fire and emergency response is ‘time,’” Acting Chief Howard Dawley said Friday. “They don’t care about your best intentions.”

These days, time is money, and in this case, it’s about $30 million. Dawley has detailed a three-year budget assessment of the Fire & Rescue Department’s needs. As the county’s population keeps growing, so does the need for more fire and rescue stations, equipment, volunteers and career personnel, he said. Loudoun County has 221,746 residents.

“It is an ongoing challenge for our company and volunteer partners to staff their units,” he said.

The Board of Supervisors last spring approved a six-year Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) budget that called for permanent stations in South Riding, Broadlands, Brambleton, and Lansdowne. It also supported land purchase and construction of a fire and rescue station near Route 28.

Career firefighters and emergency medical technicians staff the fire stations during the day, and volunteers operate them at night. “You have a partnership where the county is providing a building and the volunteers provide vehicles,” he said.

THE VOLUNTEERS raise money for the vehicles through chicken dinners, bequests, annual fund drives and proffers. The pumper truck, referred to as the backbone of the fire department, costs about $350,000. An ambulance, fully stocked with equipment such as defibrillators, costs about $250,000.

Dawley said some stations have been running 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Twenty-four hour coverage, however, will be necessary.

There also is the need for better equipped vehicles. “Fire and rescue response on a large scale can’t be done by your garden variety fire truck and ambulance,” he said. “We need water tankers where there are no hydrants or ladder trucks for three-story buildings, squad trucks that carry a full complement of equipment, “jaws of life” to extricate people out, and all kinds of special equipment.”

Dawley said a water tanker would carry 2,500 to 3,000 gallons of water.

He said a squad truck is needed to pull workers out when trenches collapse. “With the amount of construction we have, it’s not uncommon to have several hundred open trenches, and occasionally they collapse,” he said.

A ladder truck costs about $800,000, and a water tanker costs $275,000.

Dawley estimated the department would need two water tankers, two ladder trucks and two squad trucks.

“WE WANT TO BEGIN, over the three-year period, selectively subsidizing replacement of volunteer vehicles,” he said. An ambulance needs to be replaced every seven years and a pumper every 15 years.

Volunteers also buy the self-contained breathing apparatus, which the career personnel use during the day. Each one needs replacement every five years, at a cost of $4,500. A revolving lease program, however, would reduce the price, he said.

Dawley said the department also needs to buy signal pre-emption devices, which are attached to the fire trucks and change the traffic lights to green. “Much of our response activity happens during commuter hours,” he said. “Even with red lights and sirens, we have the same challenges of navigating a congested intersection as everyone else.”

In the first phase, Loudoun Fire and Rescue would use about $1.2 million to conduct an engineering study to select intersections and examine costs, place the devices on the truck caps to activate the signals and to alter the traffic signals to make the light changes.

“Clearly, we have an obligation to make sure safety tools are in place and are effective,” he said. “We have responsibility to ... make sure they are safe. What could keep them from being successful is inadequate funding.”

He estimated 40 to 60 additional career fire and rescue personnel would be needed over the next three years.

SUPERVISOR James Clem (R-Leesburg) said he asked for the three-year proposal as chairman of the Public Safety Committee. Dawley met with the Fire & Rescue Commission in developing the assessment, then presented it to the committee last month. “I wanted to know the status,” Clem said. “It was one of those reports you didn’t want to hear. … We’ll have to work toward solving the future problems down the line.”

Clem said he favors the use of volunteers, while he recognizes the problem with their longevity. The county provides extensive training, and the volunteers usually remain with Fire & Rescue only three to four years, he said.

Bruce Tulloch, vice-chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said the board will study the issue and make sure the citizens of this county are safe. “That’s a non-negotiable service,” he said.