Loudoun Fire & Rescue Sheds Old Ways, Adopts Reforms to Improve Service, Accountability.
Change was needed for a long time inside Loudoun County’s fire and rescue system. Few insiders doubted it, most local government officials wanted it, and some served by the system could’ve been at risk because it wasn’t happening.
Today’s fire and rescue system is comprised of about 800 volunteers who regularly provide service, along with 400-500 more part-time volunteers. They are buttressed by the county’s 495 career firefighters, dispatchers and personnel in the Fire Marshals Office, as well as 71 civilian employees.
Whereas the fire-rescue system was once volunteer-dominated, many companies now include a majority of career staff, at least during day shifts and for calls. The system has its stress points, but not like it did as recently as three years ago.
While some volunteer companies, like Ashburn, had high professional standards reinforced by strict discipline, others refused to discipline volunteers out of fear volunteers would leave, Loudoun Fire and Rescue Chief Keith Brower said. The inability to quash unprofessional behavior made some volunteer leaders quit — adding more duress for western companies where call times were already stressed.
“They got themselves to the point where the inmates were really running the asylum,” Bower said. “They were overruling their board members, they were overruling their chief and their president and people said, ‘To hell with this, I quit.’ And they got out.”
At the Middleburg station, volunteers were having sex in the bunk room. Other volunteers made threats against the career firefighters, Brower said.
“That’s the kind of craziness you get when you have absolutely no rules and no discipline,” he said.
The inconsistency of funding, equipment, training, discipline and service among engine companies was becoming pronounced, and stresses between volunteer and career professionals were fracturing. A handful of well-funded engine companies were getting richer and more robust, while some others — especially in the west — were struggling to meet basic service requirements. Most of all, the organizational and management structure of fire and rescue was dysfunctional.
Almost everything has changed, thanks to a mandate from county government, a new ordinance in 2014 and a commitment by the stakeholders themselves to reform their governance, funding and service plan — and work for the long term success of fire and rescue services in Loudoun County.
Brower was appointed head of the newly named Combined System in 2014. He started as a volunteer in Purcellville in 1973, worked briefly in Fairfax, and returned to Loudoun in 1984.
He was promoted to Fire Chief in 2010, but until the reforms Brower’s was mostly a title without authority.
The Case for Change
For decades, Loudoun’s Fire and Rescue was staffed mainly by volunteers, a system that worked well in a largely rural, sparsely populated county. That volunteer-based nucleus was still in place by the 2000’s, at which time the county and its needs, were changing dramatically.
Until 2014, the Fire and Rescue Commission governed all things fire and rescue in Loudoun County. Brower, like career chief predecessors, sat on the commission with six volunteer chiefs — often leaving the career point of view out-voted.
“The chief of the department was one vote out of seven, so many times the votes were six-to-one, particularly when it came to sensitive matters like minimum training requirements and certain other things,” Brower said.
In addition to the lack of consistency in training standards, there was no consistency in volunteer company bylaws. When it came time to discipline volunteers, there were 17 different approaches — one for each company. Sometimes it would be up to the company chief. Sometimes the company’s board of directors made a decision. Other times it was decision by all volunteer members.
Another problem with the system was that county funds were not being allocated to volunteer companies equitably. As a result, the better funded companies continued to get richer. Other companies, particularly in western Loudoun, struggled to secure funds to update equipment or even buy enough uniforms.
Bradley Quin is Chair of the Administrative Operations Committee in the new combined regime, and President of the Purcellville Volunteer Fire Company. He said funds were unequally distributed based on a structure that had been established many years ago, and that allocations had not changed despite growth and change in the system.
In addition to this, certain volunteer companies were receiving county funds when they weren’t providing adequate service or meeting training requirements. The most notable example was the Neersville Volunteer Company, which only had about six members able to run fire calls. Neersville was decertified, and eventually closed by the Board of Supervisors in 2013, with its volunteers encouraged to participate in other, nearby companies.
Call response times got longer as the system struggled to staff stations, especially in western Loudoun. The east had its own set of problems due to growing call numbers and limited capacity. Poorer companies were under-equipped, and “bad eggs” that were dismissed from one volunteer company would end up moving to another where the problems continued, Brower said.
A New, Combined System
In 2012, the Board of Supervisors appointed a Government Reform Commission to research, review and recommend improvements on county programs and services. One of its most urgent objectives was to look at fire and rescue. The commission’s recommendations, made in 2012 and 2013, called for comprehensive changes for the department.
As part of the reforms, then Fire and Rescue Commission Chair Nick Croce appointed a special group to work on financial distribution to the different companies. The group brought all fire company presidents together for the first time in years, and they worked out a process for a more fair and transparent fund allocation method. This resulted in a flexible funding algorithm that could be updated each year as company circumstances changed.
Most county board members enthusiastically supported reforms, including then chairman Scott York (R-At Large), who had experienced the frustration of dealing with fire and rescue issues for years. Vice chairman Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn), then chairman of the board’s Finance, Government Services and Operations Committee, also led the charge. In the end, the board voted 8 to 1 in favor of a new ordinance on April 16, 2014, with supervisor Eugene Delgaudio (R-Sterling) voting no.
From this ordinance, the Combined Fire and Rescue System was born with Brower as its first Chief.
Below him are two Assistant Chiefs. Matthew Tobia, a 25 year veteran of Anne Arundel County, Maryland, is responsible for support services and volunteer administration. Keith Johnson worked in Fairfax County for 33 years, and is primarily responsible for department operations.
Within the system is a universal means of disciplining and maintaining order in the department as well as the implementation of the new financial allocation algorithm.
The results were seen almost immediately. The funding algorithm made county funding equitable, and discipline and training policies could be applied equally across all personnel. For example, volunteer members who had been dismissed from a company because of disciplinary issues are no longer allowed to join another company in the system.
Company bylaws are subservient to the ordinance, which has helped too, Johnson said. Now, companies decide disciplinary action, but it is ultimately left to the discretion of Brower, the system chief.
Some volunteers were resistant to change and still are because they feel the county is exerting too much control. After decades under a system controlled by volunteers, the new approach will take time to earn everyone’s trust.
“Change produces disequilibrium, disequilibrium produces anxiety, anxiety produces fear; it causes people to step back and be afraid of change,” Tobia said.
All in all, Tobia believes there is room for improvement in the new system, but the restructuring has made it more equitable and efficient.
“I think what you would find is that if you asked most people if they ever in a million years envisioned that things would be as equitable today, five years ago, they would say no. They would say it would never happen or that things would never change and never get better. Things are infinitely better than they were. Issues that need to be addressed are in fact being addressed,” Tobia said.
Although the system is more equitable in terms of training standards, discipline and funding, volunteer and career personnel are still figuring out how to best balance all perspectives.
“I’ve never seen the level of, frankly, dedication, commitment and participation from a volunteer force as I’ve seen here in Loudoun County,” Tobia said. “But it’s change, and change is hard, and there is a fundamental ongoing fear of change.”
Tobia estimates around 90 percent of volunteer chiefs have been in the system since before the ordinance took effect, so many volunteers remember the days when they were more independent.
“From a volunteer perspective, we were very concerned that the evolution of a growing career department would naturally overwhelm us and begin to become something we had less and less control over, not just system-wide, but in control of our own circumstances,” Quin said.
When the ordinance was still being discussed, volunteers pushed for a civilian position be created at the county level. Ideally, the system fire chief would report to this civilian authority, that way the system would be controlled by an independent party. This did not make it through the board ordinance changes, Quin said. Instead, a second assistant chief position was created to primarily focus on working with volunteers.
While some volunteers were satisfied with this, others were still worried about how it would affect their voices and interests being heard, Quin said.
“Right from the very beginning, when those changes were made initially to remove civilian authority, there were sectors in the volunteer community that said, ‘This is not a good thing, too much control is shifting immediately to the career side.’ And I regret to tell you that that sentiment has grown,” Quin said.
In Quin’s opinion, some of the policies and practices in place for training are hard on volunteers. The system needs to get more creative in finding a way to provide training as effectively as possible for people who work all day and then volunteer at night or work on the weekend and volunteer when they can, Quin said.
“We want to be the same, that is, we want to all be trained to the same standard, and we want to be healthy to the same standard. No one can argue against that, but I constantly say, it’s not what we want people training for, it’s how we do the training that’s going to have to be different so that we can not diminish or discourage people who have families or full time jobs to tackle the training requirements and get it done,” Quin said.
“We are not the same kind of people and don’t do the same kinds of things in terms of running a 24 hour day across the two structures. Yes, we ride the trucks together, yes we fight the fires the same way, yes we assume the same responsibilities, but we get there through different paths and I don’t think there’s that recognition of that yet,” Quin said.
Another issue looking forward is how to manage a system where volunteers still own most of the vehicles. Around 80 percent of apparatus is owned by volunteer companies. The first county-owned engine was bought after 2005, Tobia said.
“My company operates nine vehicles, nine very expensive pieces of equipment that I own. The county doesn’t own them. And I pay for their fuel, for their maintenance, insurance, and the county uses that equipment, so there’s a savings there,” Quin said.
Some fire and rescue facilities are county-owned, while others are volunteer-owned, which creates another set of challenges. And in some circumstances, a volunteer company like Lucketts might own a station but the county owns the apparatus and staffs the station, Brower said.
The evolution is toward more county-owned facilities. Some older volunteer-owned stations will be replaced by county-owned stations when it’s time and when renovation is less cost-effective, Brower said. And when renovation is called for, the county will still give volunteer companies fiscal support.
Loudoun County generally gives volunteer companies $6 million in support so that they can spend their time training and providing service instead of cut that time down to fundraise, Tobia said.
When companies need to buy new engines, ambulances or other apparatus, the county can also pitch in. Depending on what volunteer companies request, the county will pay for 59 percent of new equipment, or pay the full cost and own the equipment while the volunteers use it, Tobia said. When the county chips in 59 percent, volunteers keep the ownership.
Brower said it’s important to fully respect the volunteers and their contributions to fire and rescues, notwithstanding the changes. He said the county waits for volunteers to request assistance before helping staff the stations, and that his approach is to always strive for cooperation.
While stations in Aldie, Middleburg, Round Hill and Hamilton have 24/7 county staffing, other stations have county staff fill in only for hours volunteers cannot cover. Purcellville Rescue and Sterling Rescue are the only companies staffed by volunteers at all hours, a proud tradition that Brower respects.
Quin said he is committed to making the system work and keeping the volunteer force as strong as possible.
“We all want it to work, we all want it to be a combined system, and we think there are models out there that will help us continue to keep the companies that are strong, strong, and cut our losses and move forward and be a combined system with a different balance of career versus volunteer,” Quin said.
“County residents should not be able to tell whether they are being served by volunteers or career personnel,” Brower said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”
Tribune Executive Editor Tom Julia served as chairman of the Loudoun County Government Reform Commission and provided background for this story.