WINCHESTER — Now that Winchester’s Fire and Rescue Department has addressed the most immediate needs in its rebuilding process, officials are developing long-term plans to make sure the agency and Rouss City Hall sidestep the types of pitfalls that once left the city’s residents and businesses inadequately protected in the event of emergencies.
Former interim Fire and Rescue Chief Hadden Culp, who is serving the department as a consultant while recently appointed Chief Jon Henschel acclimates to his new job, updated Winchester’s Public Health and Safety Committee on Wednesday about how the department is working with city officials to implement a new strategic plan that will guide operations for the next three to five years.
Additionally, Culp said, “We’re nearing completion of a complete review of all of our policies and procedures at Fire and Rescue. Just about every one of them has been looked at, dusted off and updated to reflect current needs.”
Another significant development in the department’s ongoing efforts to improve operations is the drafting of an agreement between the Fire and Rescue Department and the volunteer firefighters who own and maintain Winchester’s four fire and rescue stations — Friendship, Rouss, Shawnee and South End.
According to Culp, the proposed agreement, which is expected to be ratified this summer, would lay out the specific responsibilities of the department and its volunteers. For example, the department will continue to purchase apparatus to supply the fire stations, while the volunteers will continue to own the stations and allow Winchester to use the facilities for the safety of the community.
It’s the same arrangement the department and volunteers have had for decades, but until now, there hasn’t been a central document that clearly specifies the terms of the partnership. The lack of a formal agreement is one of the things that created bad blood in recent years between Rouss City Hall and the Fire and Rescue Department.
In April 2020, an independent study by Emergency Services Consulting International of Chantilly determined the department was in crisis after years of escalating tensions between it and City Hall led to staffing shortages, inabilities to properly respond to emergencies, hostilities between city officials and volunteers, and difficulties recruiting new professional firefighters to join the ranks.
Culp was appointed interim Fire and Rescue chief on June 2 to replace former chief William A. Garrett, who had resigned. One of Culp’s first acts was to do away with driver-only responses to emergencies, where only one firefighter/paramedic per emergency services vehicle was dispatched to investigate reported fires and accidents. Now at least two people are assigned to each vehicle — even if that means one or both are being paid overtime — and the department has stepped up its recruitment and retention efforts to make sure enough professional and volunteer staff members are available to respond to crises.
“Just last weekend, [Assistant Fire and Rescue] Chief [James ‘J.D.’] Orndorff coordinated a grant-funded recruitment and retention video … to help with recruitment and retention on a statewide and local basis,” Culp said on Wednesday. “We’ve done some social media things to outreach for volunteerism and have recently communicated to the volunteer organizations an opportunity through the state to provide training on volunteer recruitment and retention programs.”
Winchester’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2022, which City Council will vote on Tuesday and goes into effect July 1, also includes direct funding and grant-matching dollars that could lead to the hiring of 10 more career firefighters/paramedics. That would bring the number of emergency response personnel within the department to 74, Orndorff told the Public Health and Safety Committee.
Other recent improvement efforts within the Winchester Fire and Rescue Department include:
Restructuring administrative office staff and duties.
Efficiency enhancements for the Winchester Fire Marshal’s Office.
Applying for a grant to buy gear racks and filtration systems to remove diesel exhaust fumes from fire stations.
Refining training procedures and materials in order to qualify for insurance discounts and credits.
Mapping all of Winchester’s fire hydrants and utility connections.
Conducting a risk assessment of city buildings and properties.
Attending Wednesday evening’s Winchester Public Health and Safety Committee meeting in Rouss City Hall were Chairwoman Kim Herbstritt and members Les Veach and Evan Clark.