Greene’s first responders, those who rush to offer aid in times of crisis, need our help. To call the lack of volunteerism for our fire departments and rescue squad a crisis is not overstating it. Without the volunteers, it’s a game of Russian roulette: which 9-1-1 request will lack the manpower to answer?
In mid-April, Elke Wilson of Ruckersville dialed 9-1- 1 because her husband—a retired U.S. Army veteran diagnosed with ALS—had chest pain. She called again 15 minutes later when no ambulance had arrived. After another 15 minutes passed, she drove her husband to the University of Virginia Medical Center where he was diagnosed with internal bleeding.
“I lost all my confidence that if I need help with a terminally ill patient I have at home that I will get the help that I need in the time I need,” she told the Greene County Board of Supervisors on May 14.
At that time the rescue squad had one paid shift during the daytime hours, but volunteers covered nights. That evening there was enough to have one running ambulance. Since that time a new paid shift has been approved for the fiscal year 2020 budget that went into effect on July 1. All three fire departments (Dyke, Stanardsville and Ruckersville) are still operated 100% by volunteers, but that’s getting more difficult to accomplish. All four volunteer departments operate as independent non-profits.
The work load is not about to vanish as our county continues to grow, either. According to statistics from the Greene County Sheriff’s Office, in 2018 the three fire departments answered a total of 1,061 calls while the rescue squad answered 2,337 calls.
Greene County is not alone as its departments struggle to find volunteers to be first responders.
There were roughly 132,000 less volunteer firefighters in the United States in 2017 than in 2015, according to the National Fire Protection Association. In Virginia alone, only about 7.5% of the 2.2 million volunteers provide counseling, medical care, fire and EMS or protective services.
The cost to operate one paid station would be roughly $1 million—for salary and benefits alone. To have three fire departments and a rescue squad fully paid we’re looking at another $4 million needed to be added to our budget in Greene County. That equates to an additional 20 cents added to real estate tax, and that increase isn’t something that will be shouldered easily by most people in Greene County where the median income per household is just shy of $63,000.
The supervisors were expected to approve a study at their July 23 meeting by the Virginia Fire Services Board at no charge for fire and emergency medical services in Greene County. This is a great first step to making sure the departments are operating with best practices and highlighting areas that need improvement. However, without the bodies to fight the fires or transport those in medical emergencies we’re no better off.
There is a shift happening in communities across the country. Is it a lack of pride and ownership in the county? We see a lot of pride in Greene County in a lot of ways—and especially neighbors helping neighbors in extreme emergencies such as the 2018 flooding. What we aren’t seeing as much as these days is the giving of time to help. The county struggles to fill its boards and commissions; the Stanardsville Independence Day Committee puts on a world-class event with only 11 people; and now our fire and rescue volunteer numbers are dwindling fast.
Now is the time to come together to be sure our community remains safe.