BY CLARA VAUGHN, Eastern Shore Post —
After delaying an agreement to review its terms, Accomack County’s fire companies are ready to sign a new memorandum of understanding with the county.
The agreement replaces the funding agreements Accomack has with its fire companies staffed by county-paid fire and emergency medical services workers — Greenbackville, Onancock, Painter, Oak Hall, and Parksley.
Unlike the prior agreement, the new document adds guidelines for operating and administering fire and rescue services that the companies must follow to receive annual county funding.
“Many of the terms in the MOU … put in writing practices that have been in place for decades,” said Accomack County Administrator Mike Mason. “Others create new protocol pertaining to areas such as incident command, dispute resolution, minimum volunteer training, and county staff access to volunteer-owned apparatus, to name a few.”
“The mutual goal of the MOU is to improve fire and rescue operations and associated response times,” he said.
The catalyst for the new agreement was a complaint from a county employee working at the Onancock firehouse relating to volunteer behavior and an “overall hostile work environment … directed towards county staff,” according to Mason’s November presentation to the Accomack County Board of Supervisors.
A third-party investigator found most of the complaints to be true and recommended Accomack use a contract or other agreement requiring fire companies to follow “clearly developed … operational requirements and administrative policies governing volunteer behavior” to receive annual funding from the county.
Last year, each volunteer fire company received between $187,507 and $195,507 in direct county funding, Mason said. In total, Accomack paid volunteer companies roughly $2.3 million in fiscal year 2023, he said.
In addition, Accomack spent over $5.4 million operating its Department of Public Safety, “with most of this amount used to compensate the dedicated professional staff who are stationed in these volunteer stations,” Mason said.
Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company provides its own staff, so it is not part of the MOU, he added.
The new agreement includes guidelines for work environment, living quarters, equipment standards, training requirements, response protocol, incident command, and procedures to resolve complaints at the fire companies. It also requires companies to provide annual diversity training to their members.
If a fire company breaks the terms, Accomack can stop providing annual funds to the company or withdraw its county-paid fire and EMS staff from the station, according to the MOU.
The Accomack County Board of Supervisors planned to consider the agreement at its meeting last month, but postponed its vote after several local fire company members requested the supervisors table the topic to give the companies time to review the agreement.
Accomack’s Director of Public Safety C. Ray Pruitt met with Greenbackville, Parksley, Painter, and Oak Hall fire companies after the meeting, he said.
“We sat down and mulled over it … Everybody worked through all of it,” Pruitt said.
The MOU was updated to address concerns from the companies — including a provision that in the event a county employee maliciously damages or destroys volunteer company property, the county will repair or replace the damaged asset.
Other updates included changing the minimum volunteer training from Firefighter 2 certification to Firefighter 1 certification and equivalent training; and changing the minimum qualifications for assuming incident command from Firefighter 2 certification to Firefighter 2 certification or higher, or having an equivalent level of training or experience as a Firefighter 2 or higher.
Accomack will develop a separate agreement with Tangier’s fire company in the new year based on the unique way it provides services on the island, Mason said.
The eight volunteer companies that operate without Accomack County Department of Public Safety staff are not affected by the new agreement, he said.
— Visit https://tinyurl.com/4zeknnsn to read the agreement.