With an increasing number of emergency medical service calls, yet another Albemarle volunteer fire station is asking the county to provide paid staff.
The North Garden Volunteer Fire Company has asked Albemarle County Fire Rescue to provide weekday staffing for its station, as well as an ambulance.
“We’ve had growth, our call load has increased and we’re finding more and more EMS responses in this area,” North Garden Chief George Stephens said. “To provide better service to the citizens of our area, we felt it was time to ask the county for career staffing.”
In Albemarle’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2022, the county’s Fire Rescue division has requested five additional positions to provide supplemental weekday, daytime cross-staffing of a fire engine and ambulance for the North Garden station, a related training division position and an ambulance for the station. The proposed budget includes $434,798 for the positions and $405,542 for the ambulance.
Cross-staffing is utilized in lower call volume areas, where a three-person crew staffs a fire engine or an ambulance, depending on the type of call.
The Earlysville Volunteer Fire Company has been using cross-staffing for years, and during the budget process last year, the county proposed using it to keep staff at the Stony Point Volunteer Fire Company and the East Rivanna Volunteer Fire Company.
“We’re not a transport agency — we don’t have an ambulance here,” Stephens said. “So we first respond to incidents and start those basic life support measures. Just this week, we had an incident in which those basic life support measures were able to sustain life until we got an [advanced life support] provider there that can administer the appropriate drugs that ended up, I feel confident, saving the individual’s life.”
North Garden is assigned to cover 110.5 square miles in southwestern Albemarle. The station, which opened in 1970, has been all volunteer for 50 years. Stephens said membership of the fire company has been very receptive to the idea and community members are supportive.
“Whether you live in a setting like we live in or you live in a more urban setting, we all pay the same tax rate and we expect certain levels of services,” Stephens said. “This is an opportunity where the citizens of [a certain] area are getting more service than the same citizens in another area of the county are getting. But most importantly, it’s going to give a transport unit and a higher level of medical care to our citizens a greater percentage of the time.”
North Garden is just the most recent volunteer station in the county to request paid staff.
“The first major investment was back in 1998, when we first started putting career staff in volunteer stations upon their request,” ACFR Chief Dan Eggleston told the Board of Supervisors at a budget work session. “Seminole Trail was our first department, followed soon by Earlysville and Stony Point.”
Most recently, paid staffers were added to the Crozet Volunteer Fire Department in September.
Heather Childress, ACFR’s deputy chief of member services, said the number of volunteers is declining for multiple reasons, including younger generations not trending toward emergency services and that the time and effort required to obtain and maintain basic certifications has “increased significantly” over the years in Virginia.
Even with some of these issues affecting Albemarle, 95 volunteers were recruited and onboarded in 2019, and 2020 saw 84 volunteers added, according to county data.
“An important data point that we don’t have a firm grasp on is the number of volunteers who left our system during that same time period, so the net gain or loss of members is not clear,” Childress said.
After looking for ways to help recruit and retain more volunteers, and deciding against a Length of Service Award Program, which is similar to a retirement system, the Albemarle County Fire and EMS Board decided to establish a Volunteer Incentive Program Committee, which is focused on other ways to incentivize volunteers.
“I think what we have seen in the past is that we’ve exhausted a lot of other options, to the point where we’re really considering direct compensation to volunteers,” Eggleston said. “Now this has a lot of implications in terms of taxes and employee/employer relationship that we’ve got to navigate through, but we will certainly look at all of that.”
Due to the pandemic, some of the committee’s work has been paused, but Eggleston said they are starting back up now.
The county also is having issues with the number of paid staff, and has used more dynamic staffing, which reduces in-service units based on the number of available personnel.
Prior to dynamic staffing, the department used forced overtime, or mandatory holdovers, where it required a firefighter to work an additional 12 hours after finishing a regular 24-hour shift.
“Leading up to 2018, we were experiencing an unsustainable number of mandatory holdovers, and, in some cases, firefighters were being held over twice in the same week,” said David Puckett, the ACFR deputy chief of operations. ”We began to see a dramatic decrease in morale, along with an increase in employee turnover, so we decided we had no other choice but to implement dynamic staffing to address the growing problem.”
Overall, the department is short by approximately seven staff members.
“Historically, we’ve been successful at using voluntary overtime to address that shortage,” Puckett said. “Over the last several years, we’ve seen that trend change. Our employees tend to place more emphasis on a healthy work-life balance, meaning they don’t take as many overtime shifts. In effect, their time off is more valuable than additional compensation.”
Andy Bowman, Albemarle’s chief of budget, said the county has applied for another Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which it was successful in obtaining last year.
The SAFER grant, if awarded, would not only cover the paid staff at North Garden, but also would allow the county to add five more firefighter/EMTs to reduce dynamic staffing.
Bowman said the grant would allow staff to start at North Garden in summer 2022, instead of the planned fall of that year. It also would reduce the use of dynamic staffing and provide depth in the organization to more quickly address systemwide future needs as they arise.
The $434,798 budgeted for FY22 would cover the local match for the first year of the grant, he said.
“If awarded and we accept it, we would have two FEMA grants running concurrently that would be picked up in Fiscal Years [2024, 2025 and 2026] as those grants expire,” Bowman said. “That would just need to be part of our long-range financial planning process that we will be involved with.”
The county has made “tremendous investments” in the fire rescue system over the years, Eggleston said, especially the last two. But there are still significant needs in terms of demands for service and gaps in the current system, and it’s likely the Fire Rescue division will see additional staffing requests come forward, he said.
“My intention here is to work with our finance and budget office and the county executive office to put together a long-term Fire Rescue staffing plan that gives us an idea of what investments may be needed in the future,” he said. “I think it’s a better way of planning our financial demand in the future and I look forward to bringing this forward, once vetted through the county executive’s office, to the board for further discussion.”
The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to hold a public hearing Thursday on the FY22 budget and the 2021 tax rate. Supervisors are then scheduled to approve a budget and set the tax rate on May 5.
More information on the budget process can be found at albemarle.org/government/budget.