Squad unit is back in Orange

County of Orange Fire and EMS will hold a dedication ceremony and official opening of its renovated station on Berry Hill Road in Orange. The county recently completed renovations on the former Orange County (volunteer) Rescue Squad building. 

For the first time in two years, County of Orange Fire and EMS (COFEMS) Medic Unit 23 is running calls from its original station in the Town of Orange. Rescue Station 23 on Berry Hill Road is the former home of Orange County Rescue Squad (OCRS) volunteers and was turned over to the county last year making the facility the first county-owned station. 

Last Monday, COFEMS staff completed the unit’s move from a trailer near the Orange County Airport to the newly renovated station complete with upgraded crew quarters, lighting, HVAC systems, sprinkler systems and fire detection equipment. The crew ran its first call out of its station later that night, marking a moment years in the making.

Orange Mayor Martha Roby, a former captain and life member of the volunteer squad, said the town was elated to “welcome back the county career EMS staff to its renovated home at Berry Hill Road.”

“We’ve been wanting to see an ambulance come out of that driveway for some time and we are glad to see it happening,” she said. “As a past captain, I am delighted to see emergency services continue as the charter members wanted for those in need.”

In 2017, the Orange County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to adopt an ordinance dissolving the volunteer rescue organization as an independent emergency medical services agency. The ordinance stated the rescue squad had not been meeting its obligations as an EMS agency and therefore could no longer provide EMS services within the county. That decision came after officials said they had tried for years to work with OCRS leadership on improving the organization’s efficiency to what it once was. Supervisors expressed concerns that OCRS was no longer running calls yet continued to fundraise for that purpose. Meanwhile, two former volunteers with the organization were convicted of stealing money and equipment from OCRS.

In December 2017, both the town and county of Orange filed a joint legal complaint against the volunteer organization which claimed the entity had “an equitable duty to convey its assets” to the town and county since those assets were paid for through donations the town, county and citizens provided. Among those assets was the volunteers’ station, a number of EMS vehicles, equipment and funds.

While the county was hopeful it would be able to resolve the issue, Orange County Administrator Bryan David included a “place holder” for a fire and EMS station in town within the county’s capital improvements plan at an estimates $2.6 million (not including land acquisition).

Ultimately, the county didn’t have to pursue that plan. A settlement agreement was reached the following spring and OCRS turned over the deed for the building. After that decision, county staff began working to get the facility up to current building code standards so a crew could move back in.

When Medic 23 was relocated to the airport, it was the first time the town had been without a medic unit within its limits since 1951. Both county and town officials, as well as citizens, were keen to get a unit back in town as soon as possible. The temporary location added five minutes to the rescue unit’s response time to calls in the town, which is one of the county’s most populated areas, and home to many of the county’s schools, businesses and Dogwood Village.

“It’s obviously very important for everybody for us to get back into the highest call volume area,” said COFEMS Chief Nathan Mort. “When you think about five minutes in the real world it doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but when you think about somebody who is in a cardiac arrest or someone who has overdosed, five minutes is huge to us getting to the patient.”

Since it was established in 1998 as a supplementing agency for decreasing volunteerism, the county’s fire and EMS department has operated medic units out of Barboursville, Mine Run, Lake of the Woods and the Town of Orange. However, when the county dissolved OCRS, the county was forced to quickly move its staff out of the volunteers’ station. It was then that the county decided to retrofit a vacant hangar to serve as a temporary home for both Medic Unit 23 and COFEMS administrative staff.

For the past two years, the original Orange County Airport hangar has housed administration, equipment and Medic Unit 23’s apparatus. A mobile trailer was located next to the hangar as crew quarters for the medic unit on duty.

Mort said the crews were eager to move into their own building, which includes renovated living quarters, an upgraded kitchen, three bunk rooms and bathrooms. Meanwhile, administrative staff will remain at the airport until the county’s public safety facility is completed.

“Staff has been really excited about it,” he explained. “The pride of ownership of this is huge.”

When the county took ownership of the facility, staff originally wanted to renovate the building in phases and make minor improvements to the crews’ quarters to reduce costs and expedite the move-in date. However, supervisors agreed they’d prefer to make all the needed renovations to the crew quarters at one time and appropriated nearly $150,000 for the project.

Orange County Director of Public Works Aaron Caine said among the needed renovations was the installment of windows in each of the bunk rooms as a means of egress. Construction added another bunk room to house two additional medics and a third bathroom to the upper crew quarters.

Mort said every three days the station is staffing two medic units, which space permits. Eventually, he said, he’d like there to be a volunteer component to the station again, which will be possible given the third bunk room.

New flooring, paint, an upgraded kitchen and lighting are other improvements.

While upgrades to the fire detection, HVAC and sprinkler systems were made throughout the facility, Mort said additional projects will be requested through the county’s capital planning process.

“Over the next couple of years we’re going to put in CIP projects to upgrade some of the bay spaces,” he added. “One of the things we’re looking at doing is putting a negative pressure room out in the bay to house our turnout gear that way if our turnout gear is dirty any carcinogens that are on it are being pulled out of the station—cancer prevention. With that, obviously, the future plan is to put an extractor here.”

In the upper bay, Mort said the plan is to renovate the space into a physical agility training and testing area, as well as to add some needed storage. Earlier this year, volunteer and staff firefighters performed mayday training in one of the bays where they tore down existing walls and eliminated demolition costs.

Excited about the future and the concept of having its own station, Mort said “There’s a lot we can and will do on our own.” Signage for County of Orange Fire and EMS Rescue Station 23 is being developed.

The county has scheduled an event to celebrate the occasion Tuesday, May 7.

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