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January 25, 2008

Career-staffed Pantops Fire station reaffirmed by Board

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20080125fdengine A plan to increase the Albemarle County Department of Fire and Rescue’s presence on Pantops Mountain has received new support from the County Board of Supervisors.  In December, Supervisors had suggested revisiting the Pantops fire station initiative as a way to balance the Board’s five-year financial plan.  Under review were both the need for the station as well as the mix of volunteer and career personnel. The Board’s questions required Fire and Rescue Chief Dan Eggleston to provide additional information before proceeding with a new temporary station set to open in July 2009.

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Supervisors voted 5-1 in May 2007 to move ahead with that temporary station, which has been identified by Fire and Rescue officials as necessary to increase response times to neighborhoods on Pantops Mountain. The area is currently served in part on a contract basis by the City of Charlottesville, but that agreement will expire in 2009. Staff are currently identifying sites for a temporary station, which will be made permanent in 2014.

The Board’s five-year financial forecast also shows 12 more career firefighters for the East Ivy fire station beginning in 2010. Eggleston told Charlottesville Tomorrow that each full-time employee will cost the county an average of $60,000 with salary and benefits. That cost has prompted some Supervisors to be concerned about the accompanying growth in the County budget. At the Board’s strategic retreat in September, former Supervisor David Wyant (White Hall) suggested the County should find ways to boost volunteer participation in order to save on the cost of hiring full-time employees. Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett) has also been urging the study of this tactic as a way of saving the County money.

At the Board’s meeting on January 23, 2008, Chief Dan Eggleston had the opportunity to explain again why he felt Pantops would only be served with a new station as well as career staff. He said it was crucial for Pantops to be fully operational by the time the City contract expires. Otherwise, he predicted the level of service would fail for the entire eastern half of the County.  If the County were to renew the agreement with the City, it would likely cost $2 million a year.

Rooker asked if the City would still respond to County calls once the agreement lapses. Eggleston said a mutual aid agreement with the Charlottesville Fire Department would be put in place, but that this unpaid cooperation would only occur on the most urgent of calls. Chairman Ken Boyd (Rivanna) asked if there was a way to pay to ensure that the City would continue to respond, and Eggleston responded that would make negotiating a mutual aid agreement much more difficult.

Eggleston also asked that the EMS revenue recovery funds that the County is planning on charging citizens’ insurance companies be used to further enhance the system. Eggleston said his department is on track to begin charging the fees beginning with the next fiscal year.

On the issue of staffing, Eggleston says the County is currently way ahead of the nationwide average of a 1 percent annual decline in the number fire/rescue volunteers. Eggleston says Albemarle gains 2 percent a year, but that figure would not be enough to come up with the 11 to 15 volunteers necessary to consistently staff the new station.

20080125fdmen_3 “Our current system as it stands today is short about 200 to 230 volunteers,” Eggleston said, adding that means many fire stations are currently undermanned. “It has been our strategy all along to supplement the system with career staff to ensure that that primary emergency unit gets out consistently and reliably. The 12 career staff for Pantops will ensure that fire engine response, with three people minimum and [Advanced Life Support] trained and equipped staff 24-7.”

Eggleston said an aggressive campaign will be undertaken to recruit volunteers for Pantops, but anyone extra would go to adding capacity.

Eggleston said if only 10 career employees were hired, that would leave two vacancies that would need to be filled. He estimated 11 to 15 volunteers would need to be recruited to fill the gap to ensure 24-7 coverage for Pantops, taking away from efforts to cover the rural areas.

Supervisor Rooker suggested that the Fire and Rescue Department attempt to pursue that strategy. Eggleston warned against budgeting for less than 12, and reminded the Board that when the Monticello Fire Station opened in 2002, he had to ask for more money to fully staff the station because not enough volunteers were fully trained the day it became operational.

Supervisor Ann Mallek (White Hall) suggested that the County experiment with going with 12 career staff for the foreseeable future, but that every effort be made to retain more volunteers. Supervisor David Slutzky (Rio) asked the Department to provide an analysis of volunteer recruitment for urban areas versus rural areas. Supervisor Thomas suggested that the University of Virginia be brought into the discussion, given that much of the turnover each year is related to student volunteers.

The discussion ended with consensus that the Fire and Rescue Department proceed with the plans to hire 12 career staff to be in place when the temporary Pantops station opens in the summer of 2009.

Sean Tubbs

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