During any given day of the week, several of the 13 fire and rescue stations in Fauquier County are dark and empty. There are no full-time firefighters and paramedics to staff them, and nighttime volunteers are busy with their workaday lives.
As the number of emergency calls in Fauquier rises, the situation worries fire and rescue officials. They say the county needs to hire more full-time, or career, staff members and to improve deteriorating stations in hopes of luring -- and keeping -- more volunteers.
"I'm not here to build an empire or make this an all-career system," said Philip T. Myer, chief of the Fire and Emergency Services Department, noting that some nearby counties have more expansive emergency services programs. "We want to build a system that is good for Fauquier."
Like Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties before it, Fauquier is struggling to provide fire and rescue services to a booming population. The county, which has 19 career firefighters and paramedics, added an estimated 5,500 people and 1,800 housing units from 2000 to 2003, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In addition, volunteers are in short supply because some people who gave their time during the day are now commuting farther and have less time to volunteer. The county lacks the money to hire many more career firefighters and paramedics. And Myer, without money in his budget for a full-time fire marshal, has had to wear that hat as well, investigating fires and inspecting schools and other buildings for fire safety.
The result of the various problems, officials say, is a system that is grossly inefficient, despite the efforts of dedicated staff members and volunteers.
During the daytime on weekdays, for instance, when 45 percent of the emergency calls come in, only three of the county's stations are staffed by career firefighters and paramedics. Three others are staffed for 101/2 hours four days a week. The other stations go unattended.
Meanwhile, the number of emergency calls increased from 6,000 in fiscal year 1999 to more than 10,000 in fiscal year 2003.
Justin Clayton, a firefighter and paramedic based in Warrenton, said he used to consider it a heavy day when his station received five or six calls; now, the station can get 10 calls during the daytime alone.
Paramedics say another relatively new development is that they are often at the scene of an accident or finishing up accident reports when they are called to another emergency.
At 650 square miles, Fauquier is one of the largest counties in Virginia. Even with emergency workers spread throughout the county, they still have trouble covering all the gaps, officials say.
Clayton said he and other emergency workers realized that the growing population would have an impact on their work. They have been surprised, however, by just how rapidly the growth has occurred. "Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it's kind of hard to put it back in," Clayton said.
To make matters worse, fire and rescue officials say, they are working under poor conditions. The fire and rescue stations were built from the 1950s to the 1970s, and the wear shows. A recent tour revealed chipped floor tiles, damp bunk rooms and leaking showers. Some stations don't have separate bathroom and shower facilities for men and women. Most don't have bunk rooms, meaning volunteers who could otherwise sleep in the station have to be paged to respond to an emergency from their homes.
The conditions also make it difficult to entice volunteers to spend hours at a time in the stations.
"The facilities are so inadequate," said Myer, the department chief. "It kills us on recruitment and retention, particularly the people who have to get up in the morning, put a shirt and tie on and go to work."
Ray Tricarico, a firefighter and paramedic in southern Fauquier, pointed out the deficiencies of the Lois Volunteer Fire Company's facility, east of Remington. The furniture is battered. There are no laundry facilities. The lounge is tiny. Tricarico said firefighters and rescue workers sometimes have their families join them at stations for dinner or just to be together. They don't do that at Lois.
"You come to a place like this -- would you want to bring your family here? I don't think I would," he said.
Supervisor Raymond E. Graham (R-Cedar Run) said the county has tried to respond to the increasing need for fire and rescue services. The fire and rescue budget has increased significantly over the past several years. Funding for career staff members rose from nearly $1.2 million in fiscal 2001 to $2.1 million in fiscal 2005.
Still, Graham said, it is difficult to catch up with the growth.
"The need is becoming more than we can keep up with at our normal pace," he said.