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Opinion/Editorial: Albemarle gets needed fire funding

Opinion/Editorial: Albemarle gets needed fire funding

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Last of two parts.

Like Charlottesville, although less dramatically, Albemarle County has been struggling with staffing shortages for its fire and rescue departments.

Crozet’s fire chief had long been pleading for more funding so that his volunteer department could better serve the rapidly developing Crozet growth area. In the county’s urban ring, Pantops, another growth area, also was seeing a rising need for services.

County officials heard those cries — and sought to answer them by moving paid personnel away from two other departments. The Stony Point and East Rivanna fire departments, both volunteer companies supplemented by paid staff, would lose some daytime coverage in order to free up personnel to serve Crozet and Pantops.

But that prompted cries from those who would lose coverage.

Residents of Stony Point and East Rivanna angrily protested that their lives and property were being put at risk. Even though calls would be answered from other stations outside their communities when local coverage was reduced, residents argued that lengthy response times would be potentially deadly.

And so officials pivoted again.

This time they came up with a plan to hire up to 10 additional staff, plus buy a fire engine and two ambulances. Officials hoped for a federal grant to help pay for the personnel; the county budget included a required matching amount for the grant, should it come through.

Come through it did — and Albemarle won’t have to match its share after all.

U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine recently announced that Albemarle would get $1.9 million through the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant program. Charlottesville would receive $3.5 million.

The requirement from matching funds was waived this year due COVID.

“We’ll be able to reapply that matching fund to other unmet needs in the county,” said Dan Eggleston, chief of Albemarle County Fire Rescue.

All told, Virginia fire departments will see more than $9.5 million in federal funds.

“Our firefighters put themselves in harm’s way every day,” the senators said in a joint press release. “It’s critical that the federal government provides them with the tools necessary to carry out their duties safely and effectively.”

The grant will provide weekday daytime personnel for Crozet and Pantops, while preserving staffing at Stony Point and East Rivanna.

Also, Mr. Eggleston’s department already had begun implementing a policy of cross training to more effectively use existing staff. The policy allows for rescue and fire personnel to be trained to serve in both capacities, thus providing enhanced staffing flexibility.

The department also gains flexibility through what’s called dynamic staffing, in which paid personnel are shifted from station to station depending on need.

It was to this policy, originally intended to be a longer-term solution, that Stony Point and East Rivanna residents objected. Although the county now is committed to adding staff to avoid pulling personnel from one location to serve another, it takes time to train new people to fill complex fire and rescue roles. Until more staff can be hired and trained, dynamic staffing will have to help.

The ACFR has, however, added daytime coverage for a Crozet fire engine and has cross-staffed an ambulance at Stony Point to accommodate daytime coverage.

The federal grant will relieve some of the pressures in seeking to fund these significant boosts in coverage. The elimination of the $168,872 match is an especial blessing because it is unexpected.

Thanks to Sens. Kaine and Warner for working on these grants for Virginia fire departments.

Both Charlottesville and Albemarle, struggling with rising demands, have been in need of some good news on that front. This positive announcement is highly welcome.

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