The results of an audit of the Prince William County Fire & Rescue system led to a contentious discussion at the Prince William Board of County Supervisors meeting.
The report was completed by RSM following the board’s call for an analysis of the existing system, which is a hybrid of professional career fire companies and volunteer fire companies, that work in shifts to provide fire and rescue services for the county.
“What we’re not bringing to you is answers. We are bringing to you data, that can be used and analyzed to answer those questions and the high risk areas,” said RSM consultant Lou Cannon.
According to Cannon there were six high risk areas that RSM identified in their report; command structure and governance style, uniform rank structure, staffing, volunteer membership, mutual aid, and asset large purchases.
RSM consultant Jennifer Murtha said that the report was drafted using data collected from both career and volunteer companies.
“The DFR structure is in place for continuity of operations. Each Prince William volunteer company is a separate legal entity – each governed by an individual board of directors. When staffing shortages exist, career firefighters are assigned by the DFR to those volunteer stations…the DFR has been able to step into the breach when a staffing challenge has come up with volunteer departments,” said Murtha.
Murtha stated that the reporting and leadership structure within the larger fire and rescue system was fragmented.
“There is no direct or single ownership of the Prince William fire system. This leads to a laissez faire and reactive leadership governance. The current system is decentralized and not engineered for rapid change and flexibility. It can take months for the current system to react to an event and approve a policy,” said Murtha.
Prince William has a uniform rank structure, which defines the minimum certifications required for each rank in the system. And within that system, 100% of career officers meet the uniform rank structure, while only 49 out of 112 volunteer officers meet the requirement.
“We noted from all parties the challenges of availability and completion of required training. These statistics lead to a significant risk as the volunteer companies seek to provide sufficient, appropriate, certified staff,” said Murtha.
Stress that volunteer fire companies are experiencing with staffing and purchasing the equipment they need was articulated in the report as well.
“If the volunteer trend continues the way it has since ’13, ’14, ’15, and ’16, there will be an increasing gap between the staffing levels of career and volunteer,” said Murtha.
“Should a volunteer company become insolvent or have other financial distress, more of its assets might have to be auctioned off or forfeited in a bankruptcy,” said Cannon.
Mutual aid, where local jurisdictions will step in with reinforcements and resources to help Prince William, was also articulated as a risk.
“Prince William County currently has one ladder truck and one heavy rescue apparatus. If they aren’t available, they will have to call another jurisdiction, increasing the time responses and potentially the severity of the incident,” said Murtha.
Several members from the volunteer fire companies spoke out against the findings in the report, and advocated for maintaining the professional-volunteer hybrid system.
“I really think we have a good system. Unfortunately, maybe we’re not doing it right…collectively in this room, if you look, there’s a lot of experience in this room…I believe we can fix this,” said Dumfries Triangle Volunteer Fire Department Chief Miles Young.
“It doesn’t matter whether they’re getting a paycheck or not – they’re professionals. We’re all professionals. There’s not a person in this room who’s not here with a professional attitude,” said David Hare, a firefighter for the Occoquan-Woodbridge-Lorton Volunteer Fire Department.
No formal action was taken by the board, following the presentation of the report.
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