Local fire departments still struggle with emergency response rates

By Megan Murchie-Beyma

In Rockbridge County, about 300 volunteers fight fires and handle medical emergencies. But with few career responders, departments don’t always have enough crews to respond to calls for help as fast as they’re needed.

County Fire Chief Nathan Ramsey said volunteers are often busy during the day, leaving the county’s 16 full-time and eight part-time career staff to handle emergencies.

“During the day is our big challenge,” he said. “Not everybody can leave places of employment to be able to answer calls during the day.”

He said career staff typically work as EMS personnel at fire and rescue departments in Fairfield, Glasgow and Kerrs Creek.

Calls are re-routed if the closest fire department cannot respond to a call. The call then gets sent to the next closest station. Rockbridge County, Buena Vista, Lexington and the surrounding area help each other with calls through a mutual aid agreement.

The county keeps track of the number of calls fire stations miss. A station gets a “failed to respond” mark on monthly staff reports for every call that responders don’t answer within 16 minutes.

A firefighter’s locker at the Lexington Fire Department, where there are 15 full-time firefighters. Smaller departments in the county are mostly volunteer. Photo by Megan Murchie-Beyma.

Between February 2020 and February 2021, fire and rescue departments in Rockbridge County failed to respond to about 9% of the almost 2,500 calls received. But the response rate varied widely between departments.

Natural Bridge Volunteer Fire Department failed to respond to about 30% of the 213 calls it received. Emergency Medical Services, or EMS, in Effinger couldn’t respond to 21 of the 65 calls routed there.

But volunteer fire departments in Glasgow, Walkers Creek, Rockbridge Baths and Goshen never missed a call.

Lexington Fire Chief Ty Dickerson said when departments fail to respond to calls, it’s often because there are not enough firefighters or EMTs on hand.

“A fire engine by itself can’t put out a fire,” he said. “It needs a group of firefighters.”

Dickerson said Lexington used to have three emergency responders on every shift, but he said it often wasn’t enough.

“If two people left to go on a simple ambulance call—somebody trips and sprains their ankle—that left one person on duty if there were no volunteers available,” he said. “That one person is a very ineffective fire engine if your house is on fire.”

Ambulances must have two people on board. One person drives and the other helps the patient.

In August 2016, the Federal Emergency Management Agency gave Lexington about $476,000 to hire more emergency responders. The city used the grant to pay for four more firefighters for two years.

Dickerson said that meant five firefighters were on each shift, allowing them to handle two emergencies at a time.

He said the city added the positions to the budget when the funding ran out in 2018.

“We showed improved response times, the ability to handle more simultaneous calls,” he said.

The Insurance Services Office Inc., or ISO, grades fire stations across the country to help insurance companies decide how much to charge homeowners in different locations. Homeowners living in neighborhoods with quick emergency response times are likely to be charged lower insurance rates.

The ISO grades fire departments on a scale of 1 to 10, with one being the best. Dickerson said the extra staff improved Lexington’s grade from a 4 to a 3.

“While there was additional cost to the city to keep those four positions,” he said. “There is savings to the residents … not just of the city of Lexington but of the surrounding area.”

Dickerson said Lexington has 15 full-time firefighters. He said the department responds to emergencies in the surrounding area within about 56 miles.

But Rockbridge County has 16 full-time and eight part-time emergency responders for the county’s 600 square miles.

Last year, the county approved two additional “floater” positions because of the coronavirus pandemic. Ramsey said “floaters” are career staff who fill in if emergency responders get sick or can’t come into work.

The county also increased the pay volunteers receive from $7.50 to $10 for each call they respond to. He said the pay was increased to acknowledge the increased danger that emergency responders face because of the pandemic.
Rockbridge County’s proposed 2022 budget includes funding to continue covering pay increases for volunteers and floater staff positions.

Daniel Lyons, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, said he hoped the county can keep paying volunteers the higher rate.

“I talked to a lot of Kerrs Creek people,” he said. “To get out of bed at one in the morning and run to the fire house and back home usually doesn’t even cover the gas for the vehicle at $7.50 … They were most appreciative of the 10 dollars.”

The county fire and rescue officials also requested $168,000 in the 2022 budget, including an increase of $68,000 in performance-based pay to reward departments with low failure-to-respond rates.

But the finance committee recommended the board only approve $140,000.

The next budget meeting is set for March 22.