Staffing challenges lead to call for paid full-time staff in Bedford County volunteer fire departments

Published: Jun. 10, 2023 at 12:53 AM EDT
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BEDFORD COUNTY, Va. (WDBJ) - Lack of volunteer firefighter staffing is a nationwide issue, but has recently led Saunders Volunteer Fire Company to request that Bedford County explore funding full-time firefighter positions on the county’s south side.

”I think our citizens, our community needs to understand that this is a problem. We have elected supervisors that need to hear it, they need to start thinking about it,” said Neil Harrington, a volunteer with Saunders Volunteer Fire Company.

Most Bedford County Volunteer Fire Departments on the south side are seeing the same issue: staffing. Saunders Volunteer Fire Company has 27 volunteers, but not all of them are always available when a call comes in. Harrington said that’s mainly because many of their volunteers have everyday jobs.

“We’re able to send an apparatus out. The problem is, if I send an engine out, we expect to have four people on; we might only have one,” said Harrington.

Saunders Volunteer Fire Company has formally requested working with the county to find solutions: including bringing paid full- or part-time staff to the area and more cross-training of fire and EMS.

“To us, it makes sense to have a shift of career staff on the south side of the county, so that they can respond quickly when a call comes out and knowing that the volunteers are going to be there,” said Harrington.

Bedford County Fire and Rescue Chief Janet Blankenship said she has received the request from Saunders and is taking the time to explore options.

“We are looking at the big picture of it, taking in a lot of data and so forth, and working with that. But just trying to make sure that we approach to the topic area and make sure that we’re doing what’s needed for for everyone involved,” said Blankenship.

That’s the same approach Bedford County administration is taking.

“This a lot of variables, not only just a site, the appropriate location, but also secondly, we got to plan on the expense. You know, standing up a career firefighting operation is not a inexpensive proposition. And that would also be a kind of unprecedented action for Bedford County; this would be our first foray into full firefight and operations. So that’s something that shouldn’t be taken into quickly or lightly, and just needs time to review and consider all the facts,” said Robert Hiss, county administrator.

Hiss agrees studying the potential of adding in career staffing to volunteer departments takes time, but is not ruling it out.

“I really think that we’re eventually going to be heading that direction as the county continues and grow and there’s more demand for these types of services,” said Hiss.

At the end of the day, Harrington said Saunders Volunteer Fire Company wants to make sure they and surrounding companies can respond to emergency calls the best way possible.

“The different fire companies, we’re all volunteers, we all work together, we’re all community minded and we’re all concerned about the same thing: getting enough staff that we can respond to a call as quickly as possible, protect the property and the lives of the district,” said Harrington.