The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors last week approved a one-year extension for two paid positions in the Arcola-Pleasant Valley fire and rescue department.
The need for paid firefighters has been prompted by increases in the county's population and the county's change from rural to rural-residential and urban. "There used to be a lot of farmers like me around here who were volunteers and were always available," said Supervisor James Brownell, who owns a farm in the Blue Ridge district. "But we have to be realistic. The county is changing and the days of the totally volunteer system throughout the county have, I'm afraid, ended."
The board first approved the two paid positions 13 months ago, agreeing to review the issue before making them permanent. According to Ron Nichols, president of the Loudoun Fire and Rescue Association, the association voted against the continuation of the paid positions in a 12-to-5 vote three weeks ago. The motion failed, Nichols told the board, because the group believed that a yes vote would "force" a paid system into the county. The only other paid fire and rescue workers in Loudoun work out of Sterling Park where they are paid by a community organization.
In response to the concern, supervisor Ann Kavanagh moved to make the positions permanent but stipulated that the need for them will be reviewed again at the end of one year. The motion was approved in a 7-to-1 vote with Andrew Bird casting the lone dissenting vote and Frank Lambert absent on county business.
Several supporters of the paid positions said that, because volunteers usually work during the day, often only paid workers are available to answer emergency calls. Although nearby companies are called if the first company is not available, response time can, and has, often been as long as 12 to 25 minutes.
According to O.R. Dube, director of the county's fire and rescue services, "In the case of a fire, especially where there are people inside the building, anything over five minutes is too long. In the case of a cardiac arrest, unless there is help within four minutes there is a 43 percent probability of death." The long distances the other companies must travel from Aldie, Ashburn, Middleburg and Leesburg is the reason for the long response time, Dube said.
Bird voted against the proposal because although he said he agreed in principle with the need to protect the lives of county residents, approval would "certainly put a hole in the dike," even if it didn't "open the floodgates" to a paid fire department.
According to Keith Brower, deputy director of the county's rescue service, the two positions in Arcola cost taxpayers about $14,000 each annually. This did not include future benefits or insurance because the jobs have been temporary until last week's board action. Arcola, a community of 290 households near Dulles airport, has between eight and 10 active volunteer rescue workers.
Loudoun County, which has a population of about 68,000, counts 600 active volunteers countywide. According to Brower, the fire and rescue service costs the county $500,000 a year.
Neighboring Fairfax County, by contrast, has a wholly paid fire and rescue service.
"I used to work for them and I can tell you their budget is about $32 million a year," Brower said. "The volunteer system is not only better for the community because of the vested interest involved, its cost-effectiveness is obvious."