As it faces a dearth of volunteers and an increased number of missed calls, another Albemarle volunteer fire station is asking the county to send help.
The Crozet Volunteer Fire Department has asked Albemarle County Fire Rescue to provide weekday staffing for its station, citing a lack of available volunteers and an increased number of “scratched” calls, where the station does not respond or arrives late.
CVFD Chief Gary Dillon said that when the department scratches calls, it is not meeting the community’s expectations.
“They expect when they call 911 that a firetruck’s going to show up, and we would prefer that when they’re right down the road from us and they call 911, a Crozet firetruck shows up and not one from another station somewhere,” he said. “While we’re glad to have [help from other stations], the quicker response is from right here, and that just wasn’t happening.”
At an all-member meeting earlier this year, CVFD volunteers were supportive of a plan to ask for paid staff to come in.
If CVFD gets paid staff for its daytime shifts, only two fire stations and one rescue station in Albemarle will remain all-volunteer — North Garden Volunteer Fire Company, Scottsville Volunteer Fire Department and Western Albemarle Rescue Squad.
North Garden Volunteer Fire Company Chief George Stephens said the best way they’ve brought in volunteers is by word of mouth, but they also hang flyers, send postcards and ride in parades.
“We’re probably a little bit more laid back than some departments, and I’m not saying that’s a good or bad thing,” he said. “But we may not have some of the same requirements that other departments may have and part of that has to do with our rural location and the number of calls we run.”
He said 2018 was a big year, with about 800 calls, and this year they expect to have between 700 and 800 calls.
North Garden also has tried to make itself more appealing to potential volunteers outside of their immediate response area and have associate members who have fewer requirements.
“I’d say probably about 20% of our membership now are associate members,” Stephens said. “It’s allowed us to open up and have more duty nights during the week,” which is where volunteers stay at the station overnight.
Stephens said they are “constantly turning the dial” to try to figure out how to get people to volunteer.
“If I knew the magic recipe and we were just getting volunteers rolling in, I’d have people calling me from all over the nation, but there isn’t a secret recipe,” he said.
Western Albemarle Rescue Squad Chief Kostas Alibertis also said that word of mouth is important, but for his station, having at least one EMT class a year onsite is key.
“Once you get somebody through the door the first time, that’s the hardest step, I think,” he said. “So having that EMT class here, where they see the trucks, they see the people, they interact with the crews because they’re helping with the class, I think that has probably been the single largest contributor to us regrowing.”
He said that years ago, WARS leadership stopped holding an EMT class at the station, which led to fewer volunteers. It took time to build their membership back up.
“I think where we should focus is how do we take this training and make it in modular form so that it’s ongoing all the time, so that you can step into training as soon as you step into a station,” he said.
Alibertis said they have to be dynamic and creative.
“The way we ran the rescue squad 20 years ago, 10 years ago, is not the way we run it today, because it’s different,” he said. “It’s a different community, different membership.”
“Is that, do you let two people work half shifts? You have to break the mold a little bit sometimes … Our goal is to get trucks out the door, provide service and provide a high quality and high standard. There’s more than one way to do that and we just can’t get stuck in the rut.”
Will Schmertzler, CVFD’s deputy chief of operations, said that during his 23 years as a volunteer, he never envisioned Crozet’s current growth.
“It’s time to come to reason and say, ‘Alright, we need a little help here,’” he said. “We need to make sure we get to our community.”
Albemarle County’s 2019 growth management report estimated that the Crozet Development Area has about 8,370 people.
According to the Census Bureau, Crozet had a population of 2,820 in 2000 and a population of 5,565 in 2010.
While Crozet is only about 4 square miles, CVFD serves an area of about 147 square miles.
Schmertzler said he worked at the former Barnes Lumber Co. for almost 21 years, and when a call came in, he and his coworkers used to leave work.
“The owner of the company was a born and bred Crozetian and he just understood what it took to run the volunteer fire department,” he said. “We had three or four guys up there that when the call went down, then we were out.”
“Volunteerism has just changed across the country altogether,” Schmertzler said. “Plus, it takes a while to get through a firefighter course to become basically a free firefighter.”
ACFR Chief Dan Eggleston said county staff has met with CVFD members and will be submitting a request for more staff in the upcoming budget process.
“I anticipate this not being a big issue. However, there is a significant cost associated with hiring an additional five people to staff their station,” Eggleston said.
The department still hasn’t given up on recruiting new members.
“There are a lot of different ways and we’re always looking at how other places succeed and fail at it, and we’re pushing forward,” said CVFD President Rodney Rich. “It’s just, sometimes we feel like we’re running out of time, but there are other ways to recruit and retain. They’re out there. It just takes time to work on.”
Lawrence DeVault, CVFD’s deputy chief of administration, said the station wants to be proactive instead of reactive.
“We just don’t want this to catch us off guard and all of a sudden on Monday, ‘Oh boy, we have to do something,’” he said.
Eggleston said the county also is looking at future benefits for volunteers, such as a possible program that is similar to a retirement package.
“We’re always looking for opportunities to incentivize or remove obstacles from someone who’s willing to give back to their community,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”