Last Updated: Apr 27th, 2015 - 11:04:56

Plan to unite PG fire services
By Blake Belden, Staff Writer
Feb 17, 2014, 13:58

PRINCE GEORGE — Prince George County is considering implementing a coordinated fire and emergency medical services system that would allow for a county appointed official to preside over the operations of both county-employed and volunteer Fire and EMS organizations.

“[The system] is designed to centralize authority within the Fire and EMS system, yet preserve the integrity of the volunteer operations without losing the identity of their individual companies,” said County Administrator Percy Ashcraft during a presentation to the Board of Supervisors on February 11.

Under this proposed coordinated system, a Fire and EMS chief appointed by county administration will manage and supervise the duties and responsibilities of both department employees and county volunteers, according to the proposal.

This appointed director of the coordinated fire and rescue system will have several responsibilities that include developing strategies and policies in conjunction with the Prince George Fire and EMS Board (created by the ordinance), making everyday operational actions for an effective system that are not covered by existing system-wide policies, acting as the chairman of the PGFEMS Board, providing general management and response for fire-related or natural disasters in the county and carrying out agreements in regards to mutual aid and emergency preparedness, as stated in the proposed ordinance.

Currently, there is a lack of county control over emergency equipment purchased with county funds for volunteer emergency services.  This new ordinance would allow for a county official to utilize the available county resources from both government and volunteer Fire and EMS organizations wherever it is determined most appropriate or beneficial to emergency response.

“Equipment is a big issue. You have a huge investment in the county with the equipment that is in those stations. There are numerous times when decisions have to be made in the best interest of the delivery [of services] that can’t be made by the office of the Fire and EMS,” Ashcraft said.

Chairman Bill Robertson said that the fact that there is no county-wide policy regulating the operations of county-funded equipment is a big liability for the county.

“The county owns the trucks. The county owns the buildings. If one of those fire trucks hit and killed somebody ... it’s going to be the county that ends up paying because the county’s going to have the deep pockets. The county needs ... a county-wide policy for each [company] to operate in the same manner,” Robertson said.

Ashcraft also stressed the importance this new system would have in regards to certain disciplinary issues that arise within volunteer organizations.

“There are ... issues ... of misconduct that have to be dealt with. Sometimes they are and sometimes they’re not. It creates station conflict [between stations] when something should have been done and it wasn’t,” Ashcraft said, before mentioning that sometimes certain individuals will show up to a scene when they should not have been there.

The coordinated system would give the Fire and EMS chief the power to manage these disciplinary issues and response services.

Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Jerry Skalsky cited personal EMS experience in explaining that many times multiple agencies are trying to provide the same emergency response services to a locality, and there exists a need to more efficiently coordinate these services.

“You’ve got shots being called from two different directions, and ... they’re not always the same. You need one person to be in charge of that,” Skalsky said.

Although he didn’t express opposition to the idea of a coordinated Fire and EMS system, Supervisor Alan Carmichael wanted to make sure that any new ordinance would preserve both the “pride” and the “history” of each volunteer station in the county.

“Each company stands alone today, and each company has different divisions of where they want to go in the future. ... As long as we don’t disrupt what they worked so hard to accomplish over all these years,” Carmichael said.

Robertson said that the vision for the future of the volunteer companies must include the whole county because “it’s everybody in the county that’s paying money to buy these fire trucks and emergency crews. [The volunteers] have their own section that they’re dealing with, but we need to make sure that that vision or that fire company fits into the vision of the rest of the fire companies to cover the whole county. And it is taking place today, but ... you don’t wait until you’ve got a serious problem before you try to correct it.”

Carmichael also suggested that certain issues and questions could arise, such as unfair transfer of equipment from one station to another, such as one company could lose their well-maintained equipment because another company failed to keep up with theirs.

Ashcraft said that this is where the “performance of the [Fire and EMS] chief” would have to reflect a sense of fairness and validity in the day-to-day decisions affecting the volunteer departments.

The PGFEMS Board  created through the ordinance would essentially replace the current Chief’s Committee, and would be comprised of the highest ranking individual from each volunteer organization, headed by the new Fire and EMS chief, with the responsibility of facilitating effective intercommunication between volunteers and county employees and determining the most efficient methods for delivering emergency response services to the county.

The new board, including members of the Prince George, Disputanta, Carson, Burrowsville and Jefferson Park Volunteer Fire Departments as well as the Prince George Emergency Crew, would be a strictly advisory committee, and would not be in charge of creating new county policies, Ashcraft said.

This new system would also establish a volunteer corps, where someone may offer their services under the direction of the county without having to be assigned to a particular company.

Robertson asked the members from each individual volunteer organization to draft any specific concerns or input in regards to the proposed ordinance and send them to the board for review.

This proposal is not final, and it must come back to the board to be voted on to go to a public hearing before anything can officially be put into regulation.

Ashcraft said the county staff has researched many different options exemplified by surrounding localities who utilize a coordinated fire and emergency medical services system to find the most effective and efficient method, and the ordinance he proposed at the Board of Supervisor’s work session is primarily based on the system used by Albemarle County.

County Attorney Steve Micas said that this proposed ordinance is the system recommended by the state for localities that want to have a coordinated Fire and EMS system, and that it is nothing new or uncommon among counties in Virginia.

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