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People answer Spotsy's SOS call

October 21, 2012 12:10 am


Volunteer fire and rescue departments in Spotsylvania County appear to have benefited--at least in the short term--from a $36,000 recruitment drive.

The agencies have had 60 people apply or join since the start of the campaign on June 30 through September--almost double the number in the first half of the year. Fire Chief Chris Eudailey said a few new members applied before the campaign.

The Board of Supervisors voted to fund the campaign from reserves earlier this year, and $32,000 has been spent to date. The effort has included newspaper advertisements, radio spots and signs at busy intersections.

Supervisor Paul Trampe said he'd be willing to invest in another campaign if needed. "As $36,000 wouldn't even cover the salary of one paid firefighter for a year, and three or four active volunteers can cover the hours of a full-time firefighter, I definitely feel the county is getting its money's worth in this recruitment effort," he wrote in an email.

The county pays up to $2,500 to equip a volunteer and also pays per diems. Eudailey said the training cost varies, but he didn't provide figures. The cost of a career firefighter's salary and benefits is about $70,000.

In March, county supervisors approved a plan to hire 55 fire and rescue employees by January 2014. Some supervisors have said fewer full-time staffers might be hired if more volunteers join.

The county's three volunteer agencies have a total of 250 members, but not all of them staff stations on a regular basis. A Virginia Fire Service report released in January said that Spotsylvania needed 175 more volunteer firefighters.

Paid firefighters have been working an increasing amount of overtime since volunteers stopped manning two stations in August. Chancellor Volunteer Fire and Rescue previously tried to cover stations at Salem Church and Salem Fields on nights and weekends, but did not have enough people.

Spotsylvania is on pace to spend up to $1.8 million in overtime for the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2013.

Mark Kuechler, an assistant chief with the Spotsylvania Volunteer Fire Department, said he hopes the county invests more money in finding volunteers.

"You can't survive just on word of mouth," said Kuechler, who is also a member of the Fire and EMS Commission. "In my opinion, it was money well spent."

Since the recruitment drive started, Chancellor has had 24 applicants or new members; Spotsylvania Volunteer Fire Department has had 14; and Spotsylvania Volunteer Rescue Squad has had 22. The agencies have lost 19 members during that same period.

It's unclear exactly how many people applied or joined as a direct result of the campaign. Applicants must submit to background checks and some decide not to join, Eudailey said.

County spokeswoman Kathy Smith said in an email that it takes six months to a year to train applicants. "It takes longer to recoup the knowledge, skills, and abilities of the seasoned volunteer responders that leave the system."

Eudailey said the county's last big recruitment effort was in 2008. Spotsylvania spent about $61,500, and 92 people expressed interested in becoming volunteers. Eudailey said he's not sure how many people actually became volunteers because of that eight-week campaign.

Supervisor Benjamin Pitts, who was the sole vote against providing money for this year's recruitment campaign, said in March that the county didn't have much success with the 2008 effort. He said it's too early to say how well this year's recruitment program has done. The focus should be on the quality of those recruited, he said, not the quantity.

"The test will be when we are able to determine the true number of volunteers that remain in the program and the services that they provide," he wrote in an email.

Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402

The Spotsylvania County Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management was selected last October for a yearlong, federally funded recruitment campaign called "Everyday Heroes." The department was one of 10 in the state chosen to participate in a geographical information systems study to help locate the best candidates for volunteer service.

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