Pr. William fire officials consider ‘death sentence’ for Coles volunteer company

Prince William County fire officials struggled Wednesday night over whether to make a rare decision to dissolve a volunteer fire company because of entrenched problems that a report found could cause “a high risk to the community.”

Still, whether to deliver a “death sentence,” as one member put it, over a task force’s report that delved into problems big and small at Coles District Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department on Dumfries Road is a difficult one that raises its own issues.

A task force’s report commissioned after the company’s three top officers resigned last August showed that the company eschews state and county regulations, does not have enough firefighters to legally operate, does not always staff its assigned units when expected and has a demeaning “culture of negativity,” according to the report. The task force was led by Stonewall Jackson volunteer Fire Chief Kevin Wilson.

In its first formal response to the allegations, Coles Assistant Chief Justin Forman said Wednesday at the meeting of the Fire and Rescue Association’s Board of Directors at Buckhall Volunteer Fire Department that he didn’t want to dispute the entirety of the report. But he told the assembled officials that Coles members were both “humbled” and “blindsided” by the findings, and would work to correct any problems.

“I stand here a very humbled man representing a very humbled organization,” he said. Forman asked for more time to craft a response to the report and an opportunity to fix problems and continue the company.

He also said that the organization would dispute certain findings in the report, but that volunteers had not yet had the time to pull together their own analysis.

Some members of the FRA’s board, an organization made up of both career and volunteer fire officials that governs the county fire system, were clearly uncomfortable with the prospect of dissolving Coles.

“If we’re going to do a death sentence, and that’s what this is, we need a smoking gun. There’s got to be something to put our hands on,” said William Spicer, who represents volunteer firefighters on the eastern side of the county.

The FRA’s decision would serve as a recommendation for the Board of County Supervisors, which would have the final say.

Fire Chief Kevin McGee had scheduled an FRA vote on the issue next week. He said Thursday, however, that he is considering concerns raised by some FRA members who said that Coles was entitled to a hearing, which would delay any action.

Forman and fire officials sparred at length about whether Coles volunteers had worked cooperatively with career Department of Fire and Rescue staff assigned to the unit after former fire chief Adam Eldert and assistant chiefs Jimmy Pearce and Jeff Osborn resigned together one night in August. Eldert has said the three resigned in protest over the way the organization’s rank and file responded to directives, which affected everyone’s well-being and safety.

Forman said that the resignations caused mass confusion and contributed to the department’s problems laid out in the report.

“You are left with almost an entire organization under the age of 30,” Forman said. He said that he and others tried to work with those assigned to help.

Wilson and others said those issues went far beyond the three leaders who resigned.

“You’re saying that [you cooperated] now. But the word I got is you snubbed your nose,” said Art Jordan, chief of the Buckhall Volunteer Fire Department.

Jordan said in an interview that his company would be one of those that would have to pick up the slack if officials decide to dissolve Coles. While career staff are always present at Coles and elsewhere, they work hand-in-hand with volunteers who staff ambulances and fire tankers at night and on weekends, he said.

He said that such a move could affect the area’s response times and service. But, he said, even with the company in place, there were clear “risk liabilities” raised in the report.

“We can’t wait” to dissolve the company, he said. “We have to get proper service to the community.”

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