CHARLES TOWN – A county takeover of the Blue Ridge Mountain Volunteer Fire Department might be unavoidable in the long term, according to new company president, Fred Collins.
In what Commissioner Walt Pellish called a “heartfelt and enlightening commentary,” Collins apologized to the Jefferson County Commission last week for the trouble the company has caused the county and the other volunteer departments, and said that while the department will continue to work to improve on its own, in order for it to fully meet the need of residents of the Blue Ridge Mountain, the county will need to step in.
“Blue Ridge Mountain Volunteer Fire Department would like to start doing a joint venture with the commission and (the Jefferson County Emergency Services Agency) and everyone else that is involved,” Collins said. “You all are going to have to think about taking over the fire department from us.”
“What we need to do is start looking at some ways that we can start protect the community a little bit better. That’s what we’re all here to do is serve the community.”
Collins, who talked openly about the scandals that have rocked the department in recent years, also hinted that more individuals may be implicated in the embezzlement scandal.
“We’ve had the stealing of the money, which is now in criminal court as well as civil court, with the lady with felonies, and it is probably going to pursue to a few more people in the next short time period,” Collins said. “We’ve had arson, with the assistant fire chief involved in it. We’ve had power struggle issues amongst different leadership – and the main time period was basically from 2007 to the end of 2011.”
Collins, who was elected president following the resignation of former president Ed Burns, also went over some of the measures that have been taken to remedy problems with finances and leadership at the department.
“We have gotten people out of the department that were problems, or suspended people waiting on the results of the different (legal) cases,” Collins said. “We’ve totally rewritten our bylaws to update them to where they need to be… We’ve also hired a CPA. We’ve paid them $6,000 so far, and it is probably going to go up from there. In that we are going to have it set up so that future audits can be done without a problem. Our 990 is being done. That will be turned in to you.
“The books that have been done before are less than good. We will not be able to do a true audit of last year, but what they are doing is going back through it, trying to reconcile everything to get it up to where (it needs to be). Our goal is to be able to do an audit before the end of the year.”
Burns, who was killed in an accident last month, resigned after serving just a few months as president, describing his own efforts at reforming the fire company as unsuccessful.
Even with improved financial and leadership practices, however, the department still faces one big obstacle: a lack of volunteers. While all departments in the county site this as a growing problem, Collins said it is especially acute at Blue Ridge.
“We are doing recruitment, but unfortunately volunteerism is not what it used to be,” Collins said. “We are finding that most of our young people don’t stay even five years anymore.
“We realize that we cannot provide the services that we did years ago. We do not have the manpower. We have the equipment. We do not have the manpower, and we certainly don’t have the finances.”
“We only have a couple of drivers who can drive everything. There’s two of us. Both of us are line officers and we are the only line officers. During the day, we do not have drivers who can drive all of the equipment. We do have some drivers that are in training, but it takes them a long time to get cleared on everything.”
All of these problems taken together mean that certain response time standards that are required by national firefighting standards cannot be met by Blue Ridge, Collins said. “There’s just no way.”
One immediate improvement, Collins argued, could be made if emergency medical technicians paid by the JCESA were allowed to respond to fire calls.
“They sit in our station, and they are directed not to do anything with fire equipment,” Collins said. “These guys are qualified. Most of them are either officers or past officers of volunteer fire departments that are quite capable of driving these trucks. I have volunteers that will come out during the day, but they know that when we’re not there there is no sense in them going because the truck is not going to get on the road.”
Collins also said that Loudoun County’s decision to no longer send fire crews across the state line has greatly worsened the situation, leaving Blue Ridge residents dangerously exposed to the danger of fire.
“Where we sit on the mountain,” said Collins, “response time for the closest station, which is Citizens, to our substation is 10 minutes. Our response time from our substation to our main station – running lights and sirens – is a good 10 minutes, not including to get further. Going the other way on Mission Road we can be as much as 30 minutes response time.”