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FairfaxReport details challenges facing volunteer fire companies

Report details challenges facing volunteer fire companies

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Fairfax County’s volunteer fire departments persevered with their mission during the pandemic and have been trying to forge even stronger bonds with the county’s Fire and Rescue Department.

But obstacles such as apparatus costs and bureaucratic rigidity still must be overcome, said Shawn Stokes, chairman of the Fairfax County Volunteer Fire Commission, who presented the Board of Supervisors Sept. 13 with the Fairfax County Volunteer Fire Service Annual Report.

The document highlighted how the county’s volunteer fire departments coped with pandemic-related challenges and made progress in some areas, such as helping ensure units were at least minimally staffed.

Volunteer fire departments continue to collaborate with the Fire and Rescue Department on apparatuses, facilities and personnel, he said.

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“We are integrated into the process in a way that just a few years ago I never thought I’d see,” said Stokes, who also is chief of the Dunn Loring Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department.

There are fewer volunteers in the ranks, as some departed during the pandemic and some departments saw lower recruitment, he said. “Yet with the core group of volunteers we have today, we are maintaining and in some cases growing our capacity and level of activity, which is very encouraging,” Stokes said.

Using a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant in 2019, the Fairfax County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association spent the last year building its recruitment capacity and is beginning to see dividends, he said.

Bingo and other fund-raising activities have returned, but volunteer fire departments still face staffing and supply-chain challenges, Stokes said.

Apparatus procurement and maintenance were concerns before the pandemic and have increased since, with apparatus costs now rising by 26 percent annually, he said.

This increase not only stems from the current supply-chain issues, but also improvements in vehicle emissions, safety and technology, the annual report read.

Commission leaders are working with county Fire Chief John Butler to develop options to improve the partnership between volunteer fire departments and the Fire and Rescue Department and ensure volunteers continue to make contributions, Stokes said.

“We recognize the current issues with staffing and supply chains, but we have seen first-hand functional and bureaucratic inefficiencies that have negatively impacted our combined fleet of vehicles – and in some cases, our ability to provide service as a result,” he said. “Changes need to be made to improve that.”

Stokes credited Butler with improving the organizations’ partnership in “ways I never thought I’d see.”

Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay (D) said he appreciated the work by Stokes, Butler and the volunteers to ensure the parties were acting as one fire department.

“For those of us who’ve been around a long time, we know that wasn’t always the case,” said McKay. “We all come for the same reason: to save lives and serve our community.”

Board members thanked Stokes for his presentation and for the volunteers’ efforts in the community.

Supervisor Patrick Herrity (R-Springfield) asked him to provide further information about bureaucratic hurdles being encountered.

“I think we need to get past that [and] be nimble and flexible,” Herrity said.

The commission compiled the report with the Fairfax County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, which consists of 12 independently charted volunteer fire departments staffed by 658 volunteers (432 operational, 226 administrative).

The annual operating cost of the stations, seven of which are volunteer-owned, is $3.1 million. Volunteer fire departments own 77 vehicles deployed in the county and its apparatus fleet has a replacement cost of nearly $28 million.

About 81 percent of the association’s members reside in the county. Forty-two percent of the volunteers are female and 16 percent self-identify as racial or ethnic minorities.

Volunteers put in more than 188,000 hours in calendar year 2021 (including operational, administrative and training time), which was up 22 percent compared with pandemic-hobbled 2020. Since 2007, volunteers have logged nearly 3.1 million hours, the report read.

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