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New fire division mulled

Thursday, February 7, 2013

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

The Henry County Board of Supervisors will hold a public hearing on proposed changes to the county code to develop a fire division in the county administration.

The board made that decision at the board’s annual planning session Tuesday. The hearing will be at its meeting at 6 p.m. Feb. 26.

In its study of fire and EMS in Henry County, the Virginia Fire Services Board recommended, among other things, the county employ a chief of fire-rescue to supervise and coordinate fire and rescue.

The county’s proposed creation of a fire division and recognition of the authority of the public safety director is in response to that recommendation.

The county department of public safety already coordinates all emergency services in Henry County, according to the department’s website.

County Public Safety Director Rodney Howell said in an interview that the fire division would be made up of the volunteer fire departments in the county. The public safety director and a proposed fire/rescue advisory committee would help with supervision and coordination of fire and rescue. Howell recommended that the board of supervisors create the advisory committee.

The fire services board recommended creation of a fire-rescue oversight committee to provide administrative and operational oversight in conjunction with the chief of fire-rescue.

Howell said the proposed changes are not intended to take away the authority of the fire departments in their day-to-day operations, but to, among other things, help save money by spending more efficiently and to help obtain grants.

He added that the fire departments do “a great job.” According to Howell’s presentation to the supervisors, unified coordination would help create a framework for systematic and planned growth and increase consistency and credibility.

The composition and organization of the proposed advisory committee would have to be determined. Deputy County Administrator Dale Wagoner asked the supervisors for input.

Many of the other recommendations of the Virginia Fire Services Board (VFSB) in the fire and EMS study follow, along with what Henry County is doing or recommending:

• Volunteer recruitment and retention — The VFSB study recommended the county develop a countywide recruitment and retention program with incentives for volunteering. Howell recommended that the proposed advisory committee evaluate this and make recommendations.

The VFSB study recommended the county re-establish the high school program to recruit younger members into the fire and rescue services.

Howell recommended that a working group be developed to study re-establishing that program. The group should look at such things as whether it’s financially feasible, how it would be coordinated between the schools and county, whether instructors are available and changes in EMT and firefighter 1 and 2 curricula, Howell said. He estimated the earliest possible time the program could be re-established is fall 2014.

• Strategic planning — The VFSB study recommended the county’s fire and rescue organizations should develop a data-driven strategic plan with stakeholder input, and should include a unified mission and vision with measurable goals.

According to Howell, strategic planning would be a responsibility of the proposed advisory committee.

• Operations and staffing — The VFSB study recommended, among other things, a single set of countywide standard operating procedures/guidelines be developed and implemented. The study also recommended the county consider adding another paid EMS crew and evaluating other fire and rescue staffing needs within the county.

Howell said a task of the proposed advisory committee would be to develop the operating procedures. He added that the feasibility of adding a paid EMS crew might be considered in the future. Wagoner said an additional paid EMS crew would not support itself financially at this time and that funding would have to come out of the county’s general fund.

• Communications — The VFSB study recommended the county coordinate with the Patrick County 911 center to improve response times. It also recommended re-evaluating response protocols and ensuring adequate staffing at the Martinsville-Henry County E911 Communications Center. Howell said the county is addressing those areas and it reviews protocols on an ongoing basis.

County Administrator Tim Hall said he anticipates proposing additional staff for the communications center because of the heavy call volume.

• Liabilities — The VFSB study recommended the county and fire-rescue oversight committee establish rapid intervention team (RIT) training and policy, and ensure training compliance with national standards and regulations. Howell recommended the proposed advisory committee do many of those things. According to Howell and online information, a rapid intervention team assists and rescues firefighters who suddenly are in trouble.

• Coordinated training program — The VFSB study recommended a coordinated fire and EMS training program. Howell said that is being addressed.

• Continuity of leadership and succession planning — The VFSB study recommended the county develop a program that demonstrates the value of leadership and interpersonal relationship skills in the fire and rescue organizations and focuses on growing new leadership in the county. Howell said the public safety department is working to address those things. For instance, he said, the proposed advisory committee would establish and implement reasonable officer standards, and the public safety department would develop and offer courses suggested or required by the proposed advisory committee.

• County funding and accountability practices; standardization and central purchasing; and fleet management — The VFSB study recommended the county annually evaluate needs of the fire and rescue organizations, consider a consolidated revenue recovery contract and consider alternate funding possibilities through grants. (According to online information, revenue recovery refers to efforts to recover certain costs associated with delivery of services.)

The VFSB study recommended the county survey the fire and rescue organizations for equipment commonalities, establish standard specifications and centralize purchasing to ensure cost efficiency.

In the area of fleet management, the VFSB study recommended the county create a capital improvement program with a critical priority list of fleet replacements. The study said the oversight committee should develop a single set of specifications for future apparatus purchase, refurbishment and replacement.

According to Howell, the proposed advisory committee would develop a capital improvements plan that would be based on needs, not on a rotating basis. The public safety department would collect the required data for “needs vs. rotating” funding for the capital improvements plan. Also, the public safety department fire division and EMS division would apply for countywide and regional grants.

Howell said grants are being awarded more and more on a regional basis, so if departments and squads can band together under the public safety department to apply for grants, they have a better chance of getting funds.

He also said it will be explored whether the department of public safety should have one fire engine as a reserve instead of each fire department maintaining one.

As for central purchasing, according to Howell, the department of public safety’s EMS central supply is in place and can easily add fire supplies and equipment. Some other improvements in standardization and central purchasing are planned or are in process, he said.

Howell indicated he thought one weakness of the VFSB study was that it did not mention many strengths of fire and EMS in Henry County.


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