Fire and Rescue Grows with County

Fire and Rescue Grows with County

Beginning next Monday Loudoun County residents will begin seeing the Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management everywhere. On April 24, the department begins its volunteer recruitment and retention campaign with radio and print ads, a video playing on cable stations and trailers in local movie theaters. The campaign, which has been in the works since March 2005, is targeted at not only recruiting new volunteers, but increasing awareness amongst Loudoun residents about the volunteer program.

Bill Lyden, the chairperson of the retention and recruitment committee and a volunteer in Sterling for almost 10 years, said that ideally he would like to see the campaign add an additional 200 to 250 volunteers to the fire and rescue system.

"The ideal situation would be to provide continued services as the county grows and to augment the staffs of the stations that need it," he said.

As the development of the county continues, the fire and rescue system also needs to continue to grow in order to accommodate the growing population and properly serve its citizens.

According to the Loudoun County Fire and Rescue Service Plan, which was adopted by the Board of Supervisors Dec. 6, 2005, the number of volunteers in the county has gone up by 37 percent since 1990. However, the county's population is growing at a much faster pace and, according to the document, the number of volunteers per 1,000 residents has dropped from 9.75 per 1,000 to 5.7 volunteers per 1,000 residents.

As the number of volunteers drops, the number of career fire and rescue members must increase, costing the county money.

"Any active, running volunteer saves us about $70,000 per year," Supervisor Jim Clem (R-Leesburg), who is the chair of the board's public safety committee, said.

IN A YEAR when property assessments have skyrocketed and residents will see a large increase in their tax bills, many county departments saw their proposed fiscal year 2007 budget enhancements and Capital Improvement Plans (CIP) being reduced. The fire and rescue department, however, received almost all of its requested enhancements. The department requested $3.053 million in enhancements in its fiscal year 2007 budget to add staff members to several fire and rescue stations, including the new Dulles South station in South Riding, which is scheduled to open in the fall of this year. As a way to offset the requested funding, the Board of Supervisors voted to use the $2.55 million proffer money to partially fund the request. The additional money was taken from the general fund.

There are currently 260 career firefighters working in the county and the approved 2007 budget will add an additional 45 career members, Pozzo said. In addition, the fire and rescue system has 31 dispatchers and received an additional five dispatchers in its 2007 budget.

"You have to understand, all 911 calls go through the fire and rescue dispatchers first, before being forwarded on to the appropriate people," Pozzo said. "With cell phones 911 rings off the hook when there is an emergency."

The fire and rescue department's fiscal year 2007 budget was built around the department's service plan, addressing the most immediate needs first, such as the Dulles South station.

"When you create a service plan, you can't just walk in and say, 'fund this entire plan,'" Pozzo said. "We had to address the most critical needs first and the board supported that."

The department also received funding in the CIP for the creation of new Leesburg South, Aldie, Kirkpatrick Farms and Brambleton stations and a Route 7/Route 28 public safety center. The Brambleton station, which is a relocation of the current Arcola station, will be staffed 24 hours by career firefighters. The Route 7/Route 28 station and a proposed Lansdowne station will partner with the existing Sterling and Ashburn stations respectively, Pozzo said. "Every tax dollar you can save can be put towards something else," he said. "As much as people want to be safe, they want to go to parks and libraries, too."

Overall, Pozzo said he was pleased with where the department's budget ended up.

"Population increases the demand for service," he said. "The budget addresses the tremendous growth that the county is going through. It is nice to have a board that understands what is needed."

ALTHOUGH SOME of the money in the fiscal year 2007 budget does go to fund volunteer companies, the fire and rescue system must come up with different ways to encourage citizens to become volunteers, making the current campaign that much more important.

There are currently 1,368 volunteers working in the county's fire and rescue system with roughly 650 volunteers considered active, Doug Rambo, chairman of the Fire and Rescue Commission, said.

A volunteer is considered active when he or she earns more than 80 points per year. Points are earned through several categories, including running calls, standing duties, training and fund raising, Rambo said.

The exact number of active volunteers is nearly impossible to gauge under the current system, Lyden said. Many young volunteers do not want to sign up for the retirement benefit offered to volunteers and are therefore not counted, he said.

Retirement benefits for volunteers are provided through the county, which makes an annual contribution to an annuity that was set up about 15 years ago, Rambo said.

The current benefit program allows a volunteer to add $12 per month per year of service to his retirement account. Payouts begin after the age of 55 and the maximum payout is $300 per month. The more years a volunteer has served the more money he or she gets per month

"There are credibly 100-150 people who do not record their points because they don't get any retirement credit for it," Rambo said.

In addition, Lyden said, many of the administrative volunteers cannot earn points through some of the categories, such as going out on calls, and though they may work more hours than some other volunteers will never reach active status.

"There is no system to accurately count the number of active volunteers," he said. "But a lot of people in the county look at the [retirement benefit] system and think that's the only way to count who is active."

As the fire and rescue system grows and changes to meet the needs of the county those in leadership positions are determined to create a perfect equilibrium in the current combination system.

Current requirements state that there be four career firefighters manning every fire truck and fire engine and two rescue personnel in every ambulance.

"Chief Pozzo and I are both working to say as many of those seats as possible need to be filled with volunteers," Rambo said.

In addition to the current recruitment campaign, the fire and rescue department is working on a program with the Monroe Technology Center to attempt to recruit younger citizens into the system.

"If you can grab young people now before they've made a decision on what they want to do as a career then we've got something," Pozzo said

One of the requirements of the Monroe Technology Center program is that each participant becomes a volunteer in the county system. Each student is assigned a volunteer mentor that will help them learn and the system and what it means to be a volunteer.

"When people volunteer in their late teens or early 20s they tend to stay in the system longer," Rambo said.

As the fire and rescue system grows to meet the needs of the county, Pozzo said one of the hardest things is keeping the balance between the career members and the volunteers.

"We have made a lot of strides to get to a point where we have a good balance and set standards for officers across the board with similar and like training," Pozzo said. "I truly think we can build a model combination system where people from across the country will call and ask us how we did it."

AS MORE VOLUNTEERS are recruited to staff more stations the demand for money to properly fund fire and rescue's combination system grows. The money the system received from the county over the last four years was $29 million. In fiscal year 2007 that number jumped another $8 million.

"Public safety is expensive," Pozzo said, "because when the public dials 911 there are certain expectations."

In addition to money received from the county and proffers, volunteer companies must fund raise within their community.

"Volunteers should take care of training and take care of their calls and let us take care of the money," Clem said. "If you look at what is expected of volunteers, the training is untold hours and then they have to go out and fund raise on top of everything else.

It is difficult to really figure out how much money is needed by each company, Clem added. He requested a matrix from each company that listed the true number of running members, how much it costs to operate each company, how much money each company makes in fund raising and how much comes from the county, the amount of debt being carried by each company and what the company income, yearly expenses and actual reserve moneys are.

"No one supports the volunteers more than me, but it is a two-way street," Clem said. "[This matrix] will allow us to take a look at what the true finances are and then we could look at what they really need."

However, with the county constantly changing, it is difficult to settle on an exact number for revenue and expenditures. As development continues more trucks, ambulances, water tankers and staff are needed to ensure residents‚ safety.

"Just when you think you have a handle on it, another community is being built," Pozzo said. "Modernizing is difficult because every day it is changing."

While population growth has raised concerns over the ability of the fire and rescue system to serve residents of the county, leaders in the system say they are dedicated to meeting the needs of the citizens.

"At the end of the day, it's the level of service given to the community," Rambo said. "It is not about the impact on us as a [system.] We'll do whatever it takes to make sure that level of service is there."