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County firefighters protest funding shortfall

County firefighters protest funding shortfall

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Pittsylvania County firefighters ditched their special ops fire truck in front of the Chatham courthouse Tuesday to protest the lack of funding to equip the vehicle.

CHATHAM - After being denied $116,000 to outfit a special ops truck, the Pittsylvania County Fire and Rescue Association ditchedthe truck on Main Street in Chatham, directly in front of the courthouse, and left it for the county administration to deal with.

The truck has never run a call because it lacks the necessary emergency equipment, even though it was bought a year ago specifically so the volunteer fire and rescue departments could do such technical rescues as water or cliff rescues.

The truck has now been put into storage and taken out of commission, said County Administrator David Smitherman.

“Our (money) reserves are already being depleted,” Staunton River District Supervisor Elton Blackstock said. “We’ve got some financial issues.”

The fire and rescue association initially requested the surplus funds from the 2016-2017 fiscal year go toward outfitting the truck. And the Board of Supervisors planned to hand over those funds for the truck - until the Altavista Rescue Squad shut down for good in March, leaving the northern end of the county severely lacking in emergency services.

In August, to fill the void left behind by the shuttered rescue squad, those surplus funds were spent in response the fire and rescue association’s request to add a third ambulance and a Quick Response Vehicle to a backup emergency service - Regional One. That brought the backup service’s cost to the county from $98,000 annually to $350,000, effectively spending the desired surplus amount and more.

At the same time, the board created the position of Public Safety Coordinator to county staff, which carries a price tag ranging from $52,433 to $86,515. The position has yet to be filled.

“This board voted to hire this person,” Staunton River District Supervisor Elton Blackstock said during a Tuesday night meeting that touched on the special ops truck. “I think we need to get this person on board to take a close look at how we are spending our money on fire and rescue.”

At that meeting, Fire and Rescue Association President Dean Fowler again requested those funds to equip the truck. His request was struck down in 5-2 vote on a motion to deny the funds, with Westover District Supervisor Ron Scearce and Dan River Supervisor Joe Davis casting the dissenting votes.

Just before the vote, Fowler applauded the supervisors for getting the third ambulance and the Quick Response Vehicle, but said that the money should not have been taken out of the Fire and Rescue budget.

Smitherman, in a Wednesday-morning phone interview, took issue with Fowler’s decision to park the truck in protest.

“In the last two months, the board has verbally or actually committed nearly $2 million to fire and rescue,” Smitherman said. “It’s unfortunate that all we can talk about is $116,000 for a truck that is technically not necessary.”

In calling the truck unnecessary, Smitherman noted the county’s mutual aid agreements with Lynchburg, the City of Danville and the Danville Lifesaving Crew in the case of a rescue being needed.

The rest of that $2 million comes from the discussions that are currently ongoing with Harris Communications to add two new emergency radio towers in the county, which was also requested by the association.

“It’s a difficult thing,” Chairman of the Board Bob Warren said Tuesday night as several firefighters stormed out of the courtroom. “It’s more about the financial conditions we’re presently in. I hope we can get the individual hired and you all can work together so we can accomplish all of our goals.”

The board plans to revisit equipping the truck during the fiscal 2018-2019 budget cycle, after a Public Safety Coordinator has been hired and determined the office’s spending priorities.

Ceillie ​Simkiss reports for the Danville Register & Bee. Contact her at or (434) 791-7981.

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