By Rachel Adams-Heard
A deputy fire chief from Oregon is Rockbridge County’s newest director of fire and emergency services.
Brandon Mitchell, 41, started work this week. He comes to Rockbridge as the county begins to incorporate a paid ambulance service. The county currently operates both its fire departments and rescue and ambulance services with volunteers.
But officials say volunteers are stretched thin, especially during the week when many work a full-time job, and the rescue and ambulance service needs some outside help
The paid ambulance service will be implemented first in Glasgow and Fairfield. Because of their higher population concentrations and their coverage of Interstate 81, Glasgow and Fairfield have the two highest call volumes.
But according to data gathered by the Rockbridge Emergency Communications Center, Glasgow’s squad was unable to respond to 87 of 409 calls from January to July. For the same period in Fairfield, volunteers could not show up for 93 of 300 calls, or nearly one third.
Officials estimate the paid service will cost the county $360,000 initially. County Administrator Spencer Suter predicts the annual budget for the service will be about the same, though county supervisors have not yet decided on that funding.
County officials hope the paid service will mean fewer unanswered calls in the busiest sectors.
“It’s basically to cover the time periods where the volunteers are working and can’t answer calls,” said Supervisor Ronnie Campbell, who was part of the committee that selected Mitchell.
Mitchell replaces the county’s first fire and emergency services director, Craig Bryant, who left after only four months to take a job at Carilion Stonewall Jackson Hospital. When the county started the hunt for a successor, County Supervisor Ronnie Campbell said, the board received 47 applications.
Mitchell’s application stood out because of his recent role as a county deputy fire chief in Oregon, Campbell said.
“It was almost identical to what we hired him for here,” he said. “He was very successful up there.”
Mitchell started as a volunteer firefighter in Spalding County, Ga., more than 20 years ago. Since then, he has held leadership roles in Henry County, Ga., and Franklin County, Ore.
He says implementing a contracted ambulance service in Glasgow and Fairfield is his immediate goal.
While Mitchell says he has experience working with combined volunteer and paid fire departments, Rockbridge County will be the first program he has come to that operates exclusively with volunteers.
“When you bring new career personnel, you’ve got to really manage that change,” Mitchell said. “You’ve got to be on top of it.”
While ambulance and rescue will be the first to benefit from a contracted service, county officials hope to eventually cross-train paramedics for fire response, Campbell and Suter say.
Although the county will be most affected, Suter said Lexington, which has both volunteer and paid emergency services, stands to benefit from a contracted service in the county as well. He says about half of all calls into Lexington come from county residents. With a contracted service in the county, he says, Lexington’s emergency services can be devoted to the city.
Officials say it will likely be after the first of the year before Glasgow and Fairfield see paid rescue and ambulance workers.
Mitchell expects the paid service to complement the work of the volunteers.
“The thing you have to be real careful about is to never lose sight of those time-honored traditions and honor and pride,” said Mitchell. “That’s one of the reasons I am a firefighter.”