Rapid population growth has forced county leaders to hire more career firefighters to keep pace with the surge in emergency calls, but volunteers still have important roles to play when their neighbors are in need.
The leaders of Loudoun’s volunteer fire-rescue companies have grown more creative in their efforts to recruit and retain volunteers. That’s especially true at the county’s longest serving department, the Leesburg Volunteer Fire Company.
Chief Jim Cook first joined the department’s ranks 13 years ago, it averaged between 1,200 and 1,300 calls a year. Much has changed.
“The call volume has gone through the roof,” he said. “Last year, we were just shy of 2,500 calls a year. We’re going to be probably around 2,500 to 2,800 calls this year.”
Not surprisingly, that surge in calls can be directly paralleled to the surge in population both in town and around its borders. Cook points to an independent study undertaken by the fire company last summer that estimated that Loudoun County is adding 33 residents each day. For the fire company, that equates to about eight new houses per day that may, at one time or another, need its services.
And that growth has brought changes for the town’s fire company. Gone are the days where volunteer firefighters could rest at home and “haul butt to the station” when a call went out, Cook said, noting the increased call volume and a greater public expectation of low response times. Now, all staffing, both career and volunteer, is run out of either of the company’s two stations on Plaza or Loudoun streets. And both of the stations have needs of their own to keep up with the demands of the community.
The Plaza Street station, Station 20, is embarking on a $4 million expansion to add 10,000 square feet. That project was spurred in the summer of 2015 when the fire company agreed to let the county house its tactical squad in the Plaza Street station, adding four firefighters and apparatus. Design plans were recently approved and construction is expected to begin later this year, with completion in the end of 2018 or beginning of 2019.
The future for the Loudoun Street station, Station 1, is less certain. It was almost 10 years ago when that fire station found itself embroiled in controversy over a proposal to build office space on fire company property as a way to generate revenue for the volunteer company. The project was criticized by many Historic District residents for its massing and scale in relation to the surrounding neighborhood. Although the Board of Architectural Review initially denied the Certificate of Appropriateness for the project, an appeal to the Town Council was decided in favor of the fire company. But it was too little too late.
“Those plans have been totally dropped,” Cook said. “By the time we got done fighting all the resistance and all the hoops, we’d missed our window of opportunity.”
When the project was first up for consideration, there was a need for more office space in town. But by the time the project won approval, the opposite was true and office space vacancies were on the rise, just as they are today.
“That project is dead with no intentions of bringing it up again,” he emphasized.
For a long while, the Loudoun Street station was used more as a storage facility. But the uptick in calls put pressure on the Plaza Street station, so the decision was made to bring Company 1 back online with additional manpower to help with the load.
Currently, volunteers staff the company four to five nights a week and some weekend days. But Cook believes the county’s fiscal year 2019 budget cycle will bring with it conversations about the need to consistently staff the Loudoun Street station with career and volunteer staff 24/7.
In the meantime, the 50-50 share between county and volunteer staff, with career firefighters working the 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. shift and volunteers overnight, takes a financial burden off the overall Loudoun County fire rescue system, saving money that needs to be spent on hiring career staff, said W. Keith Brower Jr., chief of the combined fire-rescue system. But the volunteers that help run the company mean more to the overall system than just financial savings, he emphasized.
“It’s not about the money: it’s the service, it’s the community pride, it’s the sense of self fulfillment. It’s way more than just an economic statement,” Brower said. “Who best to serve your community than the people who live in your community?”
To that end, the fire company is hoping more people take advantage of a special program that offers free housing at the Loudoun Street station. Volunteer firefighters can live in the station’s quarters rent free, so long as they commit to running two 12-hour shifts per week. It’s not a program that is heavily advertised, Cook said, and many fire companies that have had success with the concept are located in college towns. But Cook thinks it may appeal to the 20-somethings who are still bunking with mom and dad and are looking for a little more independence without the financial commitment. Five volunteers are taking advantage of the program and there is room for three or four more.
“It’s just a creative way to do some additional staffing,” he said.
Ultimately, the future for the Loudoun Street station is a lot less certain than its sister station on Plaza Street. Cook points to the county plan, which calls for a new fire station serving the Leesburg South area. The Loudoun Street location is less convenient, as most of the new development in town is going up outside of the Historic District. So whether it is relocated remains to be seen, as it’s all “resident- and convenience-based.”
Had the plans for the Loudoun Street station from a decade ago brought with it the office space, it could have been a boon to the fire company’s revenue needs, Cook said.
The fire company operates within a $1 million budget. About $800,000 of it comes from Loudoun County and the Town of Leesburg governments, with the fire company picking up the other 20 percent through fundraising efforts. Cook said, for now, the money from the town and the county is enough to cover the fire company’s “needs,” so the fundraising efforts can focus on “wants.”
And at the top of the list is something that can’t be assigned a price tag: more volunteer firefighters.
“We get good members in the door, but we need incentives to keep them here,” Cook said.
The fire company has about 80 operational members, with eight to 10 additional administrative members. Turnover is a concern, Cook said, but his experience has shown that if a volunteer stays for five years, there is a good chance he or she will remain with the company for 15 years or more.
“It’s keeping them for five years,” that’s the challenge, Cook said.
He said they are fortunate that Loudoun is one of the few counties in the Washington, DC, metro area to offer a monetary retirement plan for its volunteer firefighters, and they also receive a break on personal property taxes for one vehicle per member. But Cook keeps an eye on what other localities throughout the nation are doing to keep volunteers.
“Are there other incentives that would be substantially cheaper than paying for additional career staff,” is the question, he said.
Looking forward is something the fire company and its chief do quite often. Cook rattles off the many plans the company has on its books: succession planning, a 20-year plan for its apparatus needs, and another long-term plan for its personal protective equipment needs and gear. On its succession planning, Cook said the fire company is in “far better shape than most companies” with many ready to take up the helm as others retire or move on.
Cook heaps praise on the Town of Leesburg government and the fire company’s great working relationship with its leadership. That, in and of itself, is a big part of what makes the fire company thrive.
“It makes my membership appreciate more what they have, and helps make us as strong as we are,” he said.