HARPERS FERRY – The president of the department charged with fighting fires in Blue Ridge communities wants the public’s support as his company recovers from a series of public scandals that broke over the last two years.
Fred Collins said there are two things the Blue Ridge Mountain Volunteer Fire Department needs from the public right now.
“Financial backing and people to step up and help us do things. Little things. Things from fundraisers to our ladies’ auxiliary to actual firefighters and EMTs,” Collins said. “The fire department is coming back as strong as we can as quick as we can. We appreciate (the public’s ability) to understand what has happened and still decide to back us.”
Collins was elected the president of the Blue Ridge Mountain Volunteer Fire Company in April. Formerly a 35-year volunteer with Shepherdstown Fire Department, Collins is frank about some of the setbacks which have beset Blue Ridge recently.
“We’ve had problems with people stealing money,” Collins said. “We had not only embezzlement but we had some arsons. One of the guys who got convicted of the arsons was the assistant fire chief who was actually acting as the fire chief at the time that the fires went down.”
Susan Roxanne Carter, Blue Ridge’s former treasurer, is currently facing civil and criminal charges for allegedly embezzling money from the department. Former firefighters Adam Croson, Kenneth Staubs, Thomas Jenkins and Michael Stillions were charged for arson last year for setting fires.
Collins said the well-publicized scandals had an extremely negative impact on the company’s morale and relationship with the public.
“2011 was a rough time for Blue Ridge,” he said.
But now is the time to seek to repair that damage and rebuild the company’s relationship with the public it serves, he said.
Blue Ridge hired the Charles Town accounting firm Ours, Lawyer, and Lewis to review its books for the years 2000 through 2010.
“Everything from 2000 to 2006 came back with no real discrepancies,” Collins said, though a few minor errors were found during that time.
Collins said irregularities in the books that points to instances of fraud from 2007 to 2010 has been given to prosecutors.
“We have turned over all the information to them that we have found. We went back and did some more research and found some more stuff, and we have turned it over to them,” Collins said.
The company is also implementing newer and better accounting procedures to ensure that fraud and theft cannot occur in the future.
“We’re setting up all the procedures for our books so that audits can be performed, so that everything is straight up and up. We have an excellent treasurer right now who works very hard and very diligently. We have a good group of people,” Collins said. “We’ve developed a good team effort. We are working with the county to prepare for an audit at the end of this year. We are doing a review of 2011 (finances) to get a good starting point.”
Collins added that the company has nearly paid off the debts it inherited from past leadership.
What hurt the department most over the last two years, Collins said, has been declining donations and the number of volunteers who have left for other departments. He said the company gets only one-third of its funding from the state and the county and has to rely on public donations for the remaining two-thirds.
“We are asking the public to get behind us and support us. We did have a boot drive over Memorial Day weekend. We had an excellent turnout for it. We had an excellent return for what we did,” Collins said.
A second fundraiser – a chicken barbeque – will be held July 9 at 100 Mission Road. They will also hold another boot drive on the weekend before Labor Day.
“We are currently trying to recruit firefighters, EMTs as well as administrators,” Collins said.“We do have a few of the old members left. Not very many. Mostly its newer members that are coming in. We’re just rebuilding from where we’re at. We’re doing the best we can with what we have.”
Blue Ridge already has four recruits in the second phase of firefighter training as well as eight in the first phase, according to Collins. Nonetheless, more are needed.
“We need a lot of volunteers … We all have jobs. We all work during the day. The daytime is killing us, because most people are out of town,” Collins said, adding that Loudoun County fire units no longer run into Jefferson County, which is increasing the risk to homes on the Blue Ridge, in particular.
Collins hopes the public will offer its support to the department’s new volunteers who work without pay to keep the people of the Blue Ridge safe.