Coles volunteer fire company in Prince William under scrutiny for range of problems

County fire officials again plan to look at their options for possible action against the Coles District Volunteer Fire Company, which faces criticism for a range of problems and alleged misdeeds, top fire chiefs said Monday.

The fire company, located on Dumfries Road in Manassas, seemed to be on its way to receiving the “death penalty,” as one fire official put it, after an in-depth report published in April chronicled what it said were myriad issues and abuses. Since then, officials have allowed the company to respond and make changes.

The review of the company was prompted when Coles’s three top officers resigned together in August, and a task force report found that dissolving the company was the best option available to fire officials.

The station’s culture had become toxic, the report found. It chronicled myriad alleged problems and abuses, including a hostile environment and failing to adhere to safety guidelines.

In another, separate review to examine whether the station had made progress since the initial report was published, volunteer chiefs Art Jordan and Jerry Deem found that Coles had made some progress, but had plenty of issues still to address, according to a June 12 PowerPoint presentation.

The presentation said that the chiefs did not see as much hostility or negativity between members, but that leadership questions remained.

“There remains concerns with Coles Leadership and urgency for changes,” the presentation said.

In a four-page response letter, which the Fire and Rescue Association’s executive committee discussed Monday, Coles Chief Shane E. Wood wrote that the company had fixed many of the problems raised by county officials.

“[W]e have changed course and are on the path to a much healthier department,” the July 11 letter said. The unit, the letter said, “can no longer be cited for any type of formal noncompliance.”

Members of the FRA executive committee, a group of top career and volunteer chiefs, expressed doubt about Wood’s response.

“It takes a great deal of skill to change an organizational structure,” Fire Chief Kevin McGee said. “Is this group up to doing that?”

Tim Keen, an assistant chief, said that the county should not simply accept Coles’s word. “I don’t think we can walk away from it and say it’s done,” he said.

McGee asked fire officials to assess Coles’s response and bring back their analysis next month. The committee will then consider a “range of options” for how to move forward, McGee said.

Prince William has a true hybrid fire and rescue system, with more than 1,000 volunteers and 500 career staff around the county. Of the county’s 21 stations, just two are solely staffed by career firefighters.

Jeremy Borden covers Prince William County, Va., for The Washington Post.
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