Loudoun County's volunteer fire and rescue services are struggling to keep pace with rapid growth and development throughout the county.
As developments spring up, the demand on fire and rescue services increases.
But in many of the county's communities, it is becoming increasingly hard to get the volunteers and donations necessary to meet the need for services. The county has 17 fire and rescue units and 687 volunteer firefighters, but many volunteers are not available during the day to cover the 27,000 households.
"Our biggest problem is that people don't realize the system is voluntary," explained Randy Bretton, captain of the Hamilton rescue squad. "They assume that taxes take care of the burden of expenses. Last year the average contribution we got on our fund drive varied from $2 to $11 per household, and from the most successful drive we only got donations from 40 percent of the homes."
Besides being reluctant to give, many Loudoun residents, particularly in the new communities, seem unwilling or unable to serve on volunteer squads. An increasing number work outside the county, making it unfeasible for them to serve. Some employers discourage employes from volunteering because of the potential lost work time in responding to daytime calls.
"A lot of conflicting interests come together to impinge on volunteer fire and rescue services today," said Ann Kavanagh, Dulles District supervisor and a member of the Virginia Fire Services Board.
The lack of a reliable pool of daytime volunteers has caused occasional delays and lack of response from some fire and rescue squads in Loudoun. For the first six months of this year there were 69 cases in which there was no response -- the majority of them during the day -- out of 5,198 calls.
If a company does not respond to a fire or basic life support call within five minutes of being alerted, or to an advanced life support call (such as a heart attack) within three minutes, an alternative company is called out. A "no response" is recorded when a company fails to get to an incident before it is over. Delays in responding are not recorded.
"Anytime you fail to provide what you're asked to provide, there's potential for a problem," said Keith Brower, acting director of the Loudoun County Department of Fire and Rescue Services. "We're fortunate that most companies are close together so that delays are not usually significant, but the potential is there. The 'no response' situation is a lot better than it was three or four years ago, however, thanks to a bolstering in recruitment by several companies."
The Sterling Park Fire Department, the county's busiest squad, has hired three career firefighters, all paid by community donations, because it was unable to get enough volunteers to answer daytime calls. The Leesburg Fire Department also has had to use some of its donations to hire a career firefighter. Many other squads are recognizing, reluctantly, that they may soon need to hire career personnel.
Several Washington suburban counties have discovered that paying one person to do a job that somebody else has been doing for free can quickly lead to resentment. This is especially true in the older, usually more rural towns where the volunteer fire department is a part of the community and several generations have taken time out from work and social activities to serve on the fire or rescue squad.
At the Loudoun stations that have career personnel supplementing volunteers, the two groups seem to accept one another. But in other parts of the county, emotions are still heated.
"I've got my own opinions about volunteer and career firefighters working together," commented Stanley Lickey, a 21-year veteran of the Philomont fire department and its current chief. "As far as I'm concerned, I'd like to see us all stay voluntary. But that's probably not going to happen; it's just wishful thinking."
Last year Kavanagh and the other supervisors agreed that the county should hire two career firefighter/rescue personnel to help staff the Arcola fire and rescue squad during daytime hours. Many volunteers in Arcola work outside the small community and therefore cannot serve during the day.
"We'll probably have to look into that in other areas of the community soon, I expect," said Kavanagh. "There is recognition throughout Loudoun that we're going to have to do something about staffing stations to maintain full coverage. We may have to become involved in specific fire and rescue programs in deciding where new fire departments will be placed and how to staff them."
Ashburn Village and the Dulles area need a rescue squad, according to Kavanagh. The rapidly growing area north of Rte. 7 in eastern Loudoun also needs a squad. "The number of homes going up north of Rte. 7 really demands a company in that area," Kavanagh said.
At present the Board of Supervisors has no involvement in the day-to-day operation of the county's 17 fire and rescue squads, each of which is an independent corporation. A delicate balance exists between the county and many of its volunteers, however. The fiercely independent companies often view any intrusion by the county as the government's attempt to take over their business.
However, the county does have the Department of Fire and Rescue Services, which provides fire and rescue companies with some help. This includes a central emergency calling and dispatch system, started in the 1950s; training programs for volunteers, and a fire marshal to administer fire codes and offer fire prevention advice.
Also, the department provides fire and rescue squads with some financial support. The amount depends on the size of the company, but in no situation is it sufficient to support a squad.
The 1987-88 budget for the department is $2.1 million, of which $554,109 goes directly to the volunteer companies and $160,000 is set aside for insurance. The remainder goes toward running the department, which has 28 employes.
"One of our main charges now is to look at our fire and rescue system and try to save it," Brower said. "Our primary goal is to find ways of attracting and keeping volunteers. It's a major undertaking."
As part of the effort, the department recently implemented a retirement program for volunteers, the first of its kind in the state. The county is also providing volunteers with workmen's compensation, which costs $134,240 a year, and supplementary group accident and health policies at a cost of $25,000 a year. Under this arrangement, volunteers are insured 24 hours a day by the county.
In its recruitment efforts, the Department of Fire and Rescue Services works in tandem with the volunteer squads' Loudoun County Fire and Rescue Commission. The squads formed the commission, which is composed of an elected fire company and rescue squad volunteer from each quadrant of the county, to unify the companies and represent them in dealings with county government. Brower serves on the commission's recruitment committee, which is headed by Bretton.
"Basically, the need in recruiting is to have the volunteer agencies recognize what their shortcomings are and admit them, and then look to the commission for help," Bretton explained. "If you don't go out and look for people to man your station, you're going to have shortages. If you don't ask for help, you won't get it."
Long hours are not the only thing working against getting recruits, however. Lengthy training periods, uniform and radio purchase prices and lack of affordable housing near the fire and rescue stations also keeps away some potential recruits.
Also, volunteers must help their companies raise funds by going door to door asking for donations or participating in such fund-raising activities as bingo, turkey shoots, ham and chicken dinners, and horse shows.
The Board of Supervisors and the Fire and Rescue Commission are trying to come up with ways to reduce the amount of fund-raising that volunteers must do. One possible solution they are considering is to ask developers for increased building proffers to help support the fire and rescue squads.
Proffers are contributions of land, buildings, equipment or cash to the county from developers to help offset the impact of their development on the general tax services. By giving land for a fire station to be built, or money to buy a new pumper, for example, a developer helps offset the increased traffic and demand for services, such as fire and rescue operation, that a new development will create. However, proffers are usually made only when a developer requests rezoning.
"Fund-raising is a sore point with many volunteers," noted Kavanagh. "They hate going door to door and asking for money. I've heard that some have even quit because of it. If we can have a satisfactory proffer system in the county, then the volunteers won't have to go door to door."
Another possible fund-raising solution the supervisors are looking at is a fire tax district. This could provide an alternative solution to professional staffing in communities where the demands on fire and rescue services are particularly high if recruitment tactics fail to work in these areas.
"I don't know if we can have just one fire tax area," said Kavanagh. "When you look at the problem of daytime staffing, you see it's not just in the eastern part of the county. There are a couple of places in rural Loudoun also facing growth. It's something the county may have to look at seriously in the next couple of years. If that's what it takes to provide adequate service, then we'll have to do it."
If the county's volunteer fire and rescue service is lost, however, besides the potentially huge tax increase necessary to support a career service, there will be a big loss to the community, firefighters say.
"One of the big advantages of a volunteer system is that, while there are only 17 companies, we have volunteers all over the county," explained Bretton. "When people call for help, the first thing that arrives at their house may not be an ambulance or a fire truck, but a volunteer neighbor from two blocks away who helps them start dousing a fire or administering first aid.
"I know one volunteer who put out what would have been a major fire if it had gone untended until the fire truck arrived, with a kitchen fire extinguisher. In a career fire and rescue system, you don't have that sort of service. You have to wait for the fire truck or ambulance to arrive."