Editor’s note: This is the final article in a series of articles delving into the volunteerism decline for Greene County’s fire and rescue departments.
County officials and first responders have been in communication—both through the Emergency Services Board and directly—about next steps in the struggle to remain volunteer organizations. Even though departments across the country are facing the dilemma, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all fix.
“Each volunteer company is unique, each situation is different and each one needs to be understood independently and addressed on its own terms,” said new County Administrator Mark Taylor.
Taylor took office on April 9.
A first step for Greene was commissioning a Virginia Fire Services Board Fire and Emergency Medical Services Study last month. Dyke Volunteer Fire Company, Ruckersville Volunteer Fire Company, Stanardsville Volunteer Fire Department and Greene County Rescue Squad will be looked into. The study looks at fire and EMS services and provides feedback on areas that are successful and those that may need improvement in a jurisdiction. The study is done at no cost to Greene County.
Melissa Meador, manager of Emergency Services in the county, said all three volunteer fire departments operate as a cohesive unit. While each fire department has its own set of operating guidelines, Meador said the county is working to develop one standard one for all three departments.
“We’re recognizing the fact that how we’ve done business for the last 20-30 years may not continue to move us forward,” she said. “I wish there was an immediate easy answer.”
The Greene County Rescue Service has been operating for awhile as a hybrid model with UVA’s Medic 5 during the day and volunteers at night. However, a second paid shift was added to night Monday-Thursday with the July 1 budget because staffing enough volunteers each night wasn’t possible.
Frank Crocker, president of Ruckersville Volunteer Fire Company, said he thinks it could be time to hire someone at the county level to oversee all three companies.
“It would require each station to give up some of its autonomy,” Crocker said. “I think we’d be willing to do it; for the betterment of the county I’d be for that.”
Stanardsville Volunteer Fire Department Chief Dustin Clay said he’d like to see a paid daytime driver for the county.
“I will know that if I go to the firehouse, there’s someone there that can drive me to a fire,” he said.
Officials at Dyke Volunteer Fire Company noted three ways the county could contribute that would be helpful.
Scott Shifflett, assistant chief, said he’d like to see a combined fire and EMT course at the Greene County Technical Education Center. Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center offers an EMT program.
“It might get kids interested; I think it would,” said rescue Capt. Jack McKeen.
Dyke Assistant Chief Mark Shifflett agreed.
“I tell young kids all the time that firefighting is the way to go [for a career],” he said. “You can get into firefighting for 20 years, retire—especially in the city of Charlottesville—and be secured. I work for the city and need to work 30 years and be 55 before I can take retirement.”
“I would like to see Greene County hire an instructor to teach here in the county,” said Marcus Shifflett, Dyke Volunteer Fire Department chief. “I’d also like to see [Blue Ridge School] staff be allowed to run calls during the day with us.”
Meador said she recalls people being allowed to leave their employment to run a call, but it’s not that way anymore.
“Now, a lot of people are working more than one job, they’re taking care of their elderly parents, they have their own children that they’re taking care of—the dynamic is completely different,” she said. “The time commitment is huge; the training is more stringent than when I started. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing—we want our providers to be highly trained, efficient and effective.”
Monroe Supervisor David Cox, a former volunteer firefighter and current liaison to the Emergency Services Board, said a county-paid daytime driver could be used in other ways to assist the departments.
“Maybe the driver could multipurpose and could put together training programs when not running calls,” Cox suggested.
When it comes to recruitment, Clay noted other counties do have paid personnel to help with that.
“If it falls on us to go out all the time for that, I just can’t do it,” he said.
Meador said the county realizes that recruitment and retention costs money.
“We’re taking a look at that now—what we can do at the county level to help with those aspects,” she said.
All four departments agreed offering a little bit of incentive for the volunteers could help with retention.
Crocker said removing the property taxes on a volunteer’s primary vehicle would help.
“The volunteers are definitely not looking for handouts in any way, but if you’re trying to incentivize volunteering in some way, lowering property taxes would help,” he said. “Providing a per diem for crews’ food could help, as right now they’re paying their own meals, for the most part.”
Richard Herring, a founder of the Dyke company, asked how the rest of the county residents would feel if these volunteers were given financial breaks on taxes.
“If 24/7 staffing of a fire station is a $1 million endeavor, and investing one-third of $1 million into volunteer recruitment promotion and retention incentives to keep the station staffed, have we spent one-third of a million or have we saved two-thirds of a million?” Taylor asked.
Ruckersville Volunteer Fire Department would like to see a change in how the three fire companies are funded by the county. The fire departments receive an equal share of funding from the Board of Supervisors, which means there is less funding per capita in the highly dense Ruckersville area than in the lower density Dyke, Crocker said.
“The last couple of years there have been discussions at the county administration level about whether there was room for changes in the way we fund departments,” Meador said. “It’s probably something we need to take a hard look at.”
While the fire departments and the rescue squad need volunteers on the front lines, there are numerous jobs for them that don’t require that.
McKeen said one of the younger rescue squad volunteers would like to see an auxiliary started again to help with fundraising.
“Yes, we need volunteers, however if you’re not interested in riding the fire truck or riding the ambulance there are plenty of other opportunities within the agencies,” Meador agreed. “They can put ya to work.”
Clay said Stanardsville needs volunteers for both fundraising and firefighting.
“We want people to know we’re here and we are volunteers,” he said. “I’m all quality over quantity though. I want those willing to do the work and stick around. I don’t ever want to see paid, but I know it’ll come at some point.”
Crocker said the county is coming closer to needing paid firefighters.
“There’s a line that you have to decide if the calls are being answered appropriately,” he said. “We’re getting closer to that; at least in Ruckersville.”