© 2024 WHRO Public Media
5200 Hampton Boulevard, Norfolk VA 23508
757.889.9400 | info@whro.org
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Virginia General Assembly postpones additional funding for fire and EMS departments as staffing shortages continue

Photo courtesy - Mikhail Nilov, Pexels
Photo courtesy - Mikhail Nilov, Pexels

Two bills before the General Assembly that would provide more funding for local fire and EMS departments to pay workers have been postponed, likely until next year. This comes as many local departments are struggling with staffing shortages and increased call volume.

Across Virginia, many rural communities have long relied on volunteers to respond to fire and medical emergencies.

This story was reported and written by Radio IQ

“The volunteers are aging out, and we’re not getting the younger folks volunteering,” said Todd Legow, fire chief and emergency manager for the city of Norton. He also represents southwest Virginia in a statewide association for fire chiefs. He says staffing challenges often mean longer wait times during emergencies.

“I would characterize it as a crisis.,” Legow said. “There are agencies that are either slow to respond. Or some agencies that don’t respond.”

One  study last year by the General Assembly estimates that call volume for fire and EMS departments increased by 40 percent in recent years, though it’s not exactly clear what’s leading to the increase. Many of the communities most impacted are along the I-81 corridor, including Pulaski County, which has eight independent volunteer fire departments, plus a county wide EMS agency. The county also has a comprehensive plan to grow its population over the next six years.

“We’ve been fortunate that we’re working with a forward-thinking county who brought us in before a tragedy,” said Chris Gannon, whose company was hired to help Pulaski county make changes to improve its staffing situation. Gannon said, adding that often, his company is hired after the death of a fire-fighter, or another safety incident.

“It’s not gonna go away,” said Gannon, who said there are many communities across the country that are facing similar situations as Pulaski County. “It’s not gonna self-heal.”

Last year, Gannon Emergency Solutions USA conducted a  study of Pulaski County’s fire and EMS departments. One of the findings was that staff aren’t being adequately trained, and warned that a serious injury could occur if the situation isn’t addressed. A second  study by the Virginia Fire Services Board was also commissioned by the county, and they too made recommendations to improve training for staff, and other recruitment and retention strategies.

Pulaski County then decided to implement many of the recommendations from the two studies, and hired Gannon for a two-year contract as a “change agent” to help.

“Our leadership said, this is important to us, it’s important to our community, we’re going to invest in a change agent, we’re gonna invest in studies,” said Jonathan Sweet, county administrator in Pulaski County.

Pulaski County and other rural communities across Virginia are looking to create more paid positions to replace volunteer workers, and possibly consolidate crews and departments.

Additional funding through the General Assembly appears to have stalled for the moment, but there is some federal assistance available. The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced earlier this year they are partnering with the  Virginia Fire Chiefs’ Association in a grant program, called Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER), which can be used to help departments entice more people to become volunteer firefighters and EMS workers.