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Virginia County Fire and EMS Department Faces Growing Challenges

Prince George County is changing. It is no longer a rural county and its population continues to grow as suburbia and subdivisions move into the area. Also, the emergency response world has changed. Firefighters and medics must respond to incidents quicker. Insurance companies raise premiums unless fire stations are situated closer to homes. Volunteers must receive more training and dedicate more hours before they are able to respond.

All that means is that change is necessary for the Prince George County Fire and EMS. Budgets are tight. The county is growing. And longer response times have, at times, resulted in deaths, causing a contingent in the county to clamor for change.

In the past year, much change has come. Prince George first answered the calls for reform in October 2012 by adding resources.

Within months of the first complaints about lengthy response times, the Board of Supervisors granted a request from James B. Owens, director of Fire and EMS, to place a full-time, paid EMS employee in the Jefferson Park Fire Station during the peak hours of 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The change did not add a position and did not cost the county any money. But it did reduce response times.

The success of that addition prompted Owens to ask supervisors for $664,000 to add nine additional positions to his staff of seven professional firefighter-medics. The county met Owens partway and raised the real estate tax 2 cents. One penny of that increase went toward three additional medic positions. Another penny of the real estate tax increase funds the continuous replacement of public safety equipment.

A grant recently acquired by the Fire and EMS department allowed Owen's original request for nine career firefighter-medics to be met.

The $650,000 grant will allow Fire and EMS to hire six firefighter-medics for two years. The county is obligated to fund the hires for the third year. Owens is confident the growth in the county will support the new hires after the grant funding runs out.

He also expects the additional hires to reduce response times. The additional resources have been put toward the Carson substation and Jefferson Park station, where Fire and EMS incidents are most concentrated.

The three firefighter-medic positions are now filled and staff an ambulance during the peak hours at the Carson substation. The six grant-funded firefighter-medics will also add staffing to the Jefferson Park station and Carson substation.

Another change for the county's emergency services involves volunteer firefighters. The county administration has outlined a proposed system that would require volunteer chiefs to report to the director of Fire and EMS, who is appointed by the county administrator.

The director, Owens, would be responsible for making policy and daily decisions for the department. Instead of making policy, the volunteer chiefs would advise the director on policy decisions. A Fire and EMS board consisting of the director and the volunteer chiefs would replace a chief's committee that currently governs volunteer operations. Owens would serve as the board's chairman.

Currently, each station operates by its own set of bylaws and standard operating procedures. That has led to inconsistencies in discipline and the inability to move apparatus between stations. The ability to move apparatus could lengthen the life of the public safety equipment.

There is also little to no oversight in the allocation of funds given to each station and no consequences if mandatory training is not accomplished, he added. The proposal received mixed feedback from the volunteer chiefs.

Also, the county is looking at the staffing of volunteers. The county wants tothe rural-based paging system to a system based on shifts. That guarantees that a unit will be able to respond to a call most of the time.

Insurance companies are the driving force behind another change for Prince George Fire and EMS.

Before, insurance companies determined homeowner insurance rates by the nearness of fire hydrants and fire stations, as well as the department's insurance ratings. But insurance companies adopted new standards based on a 2007 nationwide report. That report said that any home outside of a 5-mile radius should be classified at high risk.

That has caused thousands of homeowners in Prince George to see their insurance premiums increase by an estimated 100 percent to 125 percent. Owens' own insurance went up by about $600. The increase has been especially felt in growing subdivision areas along state Route 10.

The change has forced Prince George to go back to the drawing board to look at future Fire and EMS station locations in the county.

The January report from the committee pinpointed four areas where "a Fire and EMS station would benefit the area." Those four areas were the Route 10, James River Drive corridor; New Bohemia; the Route 35 area at Templeton Road; and the Puddledock Road corridor. It could be years before new fire stations are built, but it is being seriously considered by county officials.

"We are going through the same growth challenges that every other rural county in America is having," Owens said.

That is true and the growth in Prince George County means a lot of change is coming to the county's fire and emergency operations.
 



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