An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Kevin Wilson as the volunteer Fire Chief at the Coles District Fire Station. He is the volunteer Fire Chief at the Stonewall Jackson station. The post has been updated with Wilson’s correct title.
A fireman dressed up as Santa and other members of the Coles Volunteer Fire Department in Prince William County headed out to wave to residents and offer some good cheer around Christmas time last year.
Except that they used emergency truck lights on Dumfries Road, causing confusion, and used a stoplight switcher, which is illegal except in emergencies, according to a task force report that delved into the volunteer department’s long-standing problems.
The report also noted that the volunteers didn’t tell Prince William officials that they had planned the event, taking key fire apparatus out of commission.
Incidents such as the “Santa Ride” and what the report described as a cavalier attitude toward county and state laws and rules, have prompted the board that governs the county’s career and volunteer fire and rescue services to consider dissolving the unit, among other options.
The volunteer company, which was founded in 1949, could also could be folded in with another volunteer organization, or its leadership could be placed under the purview of another department’s officials, the report recommends. The task force was led by Stonewall Jackson volunteer Fire Chief Kevin Wilson.
According to the report, members broke patient privacy laws by posting photos to their Facebook page of emergency scenes, didn’t show up for regular shifts and didn’t abide by fire department regulation. The task force highlighted a firehouse-turned-“old boy’s club,” as one former member put it, where outsiders were shunned and fire staff treated emergency medical responders with derision.
Justin Forman, Coles volunteer assistant chief of operations, said that volunteers were reviewing the report and crafting a response. Asked if the report was accurate, Forman said: “We want to investigate on our end. There’s a lot of people actively reviewing that. We don’t want anyone [in the community] to be unnerved ... everything is operating as usual.”
On Thursday, the Fire Rescue Association’s executive committee accepted a plan by Prince William Fire Chief Kevin McGee to hold a work session on Wednesday and make a final decision about the company’s fate the following week.
“It’s in very serious condition,” McGee said of the particular station mentioned in the report. But he said in an interview that he would allow the other members of the FRA, which include volunteer and career staff, to hash out the issues.
“It’s important to us ... to have a discussion,” he said.
The FRA’s decision on the Coles volunteer unit would serve as a recommendation for the Board of County Supervisors, which would make the final decision on the unit.
The environment at the Coles unit had become toxic among the volunteer staff, said former volunteer chief Adam Eldert, who served the company for 11 years. Disdain for rules and procedures is common, he said, and some in the company became hostile when rules were enforced.
Eldert and his two top deputies, assistant chiefs Jimmy Pearce and Jeff Osborn, resigned together last August.
Although many of the volunteers were there “for legitimate reasons or a desire to serve the community,” Eldert said, “then there are those who like to wear the T-shirts. They want to be the cowboys, the look-at-me syndrome.”
Problems have persisted for years, the task force found, and the volunteer company was down to just nine members who had completed the training necessary to serve. Generally, at least 20 trained members are required for a volunteer fire company. Since 1994, the department has had nine chiefs, the report said.
The report cited a “mob mentality” toward leadership and said that new recruits or members who didn’t serve as much were given menial tasks and treated as “maid service.” As a result, morale had suffered, the report said, making it difficult to retain recruits.
The station is staffed 24 hours a day by career staff, but volunteers manage an ambulance and two fire apparatus. When volunteers did not show up for shifts, “units from elsewhere in the county or in the City of Manassas had to respond to calls for service in Coles ... putting pressure on other areas of the Fire and Rescue System,” the report said.
At Coles, it simply “wasn’t cool” to follow rules, Eldert said. That attitude was even more prevalent among volunteer units in the largely rural area in the 1970s and 1980s — far before Prince William became an official Washington exurb and exploded into a bustling bedroom community.
The issue was highlighted in 2009 when the Gainesville District Volunteer Fire Department was disbanded because county officials discovered that the fire chief was living in the station with his wife and daughter, among other infractions.
The county sued Gainesville, which curbed some autonomy for individual volunteer stations.
Eldert said that though the company did not misuse its allocation of county dollars, there were constant rumors that some members marked down more hours than they actually worked to qualify for the the volunteers’ small pension benefit, called LOSAP. The report did not address those rumors.
However, the volunteer pension program has been scrutinized, and auditors are looking into allegations of impropriety. The Dale City Volunteer Fire Department had not paid $172,617 in expected contributions to the program, and the defunct Gainesville unit had been overpaid $30,215 for beneficiaries, according to a recent audit.
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, McGee said.
“I have seen incredible people come here with great ideas and intentions to only be marginalized, excluded, used, abused and discarded like trash,” Eldert wrote to fellow Coles volunteer members in his resignation letter.
“My family and physical well-being is not worth the price of admission to this broken ride.”