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With fewer volunteers, fire units face rising EMT dilemma

South Boston News
Outside the Halifax Volunteer Fire Department Station / May 09, 2019
With declining numbers of volunteers, Halifax County fire departments are encountering many of the same manpower issues that recently led rescue squad leaders to approach the Halifax County Board of Supervisors and ask for help.

On Monday night, it was South Boston Fire Chief Steve Phillips who addressed supervisors. Unlike with the rescue squads, the South Boston department did not come bearing a request for more funding. Instead, Phillips asked supervisors to approve a new license that will allow South Boston to act as a separate provider of emergency medical transport services.

Supervisors approved the license, which decouples the SBFD from other county fire departments that run EMT calls under a single license, held in the name of the Halifax County Fire Commission. Behind the technical change, however, lies a stark reality: fire departments are growing less able to provide EMT service in their designated areas.

Two departments, Halifax and Scottsburg, have suspended first responder services after a state inspection earlier this year flagged problems with adherence to ever-tightening state regulations. Following that inspection, the county fire commission was granted a provisional, six-month license by the state to correct the deficiencies. And because of that, Phillips went to supervisors to request a separate license for South Boston.

“I can’t afford to let [licensing problems] happen in the area that we serve in the county. I’ve got to control that myself,” said Phillips, who serves in a dual role as both South Boston chief and county fire commission chairman.

The withdrawal by the Halifax and Scottsburg departments from EMT service does not leave residents in those areas without coverage — the Halifax County Rescue Squad, which is licensed separately to provide patient transport, runs calls throughout the county in tandem with smaller rescue units at the Turbeville and North Halifax fire stations. The rescue squad also can continue to request firefighters who are not formally certified in EMT to help with calls involving tasks such as lifting and loading patients into ambulances.

“It’s not like people aren’t getting assistance, it’s that they may have to depend on the rescue squad to come out and get them,” said Phillips.

The South Boston Fire Department also runs EMT calls well beyond town limits. “We go about halfway out to Midway, halfway out to Turbeville, halfway out to Scottsburg and halfway to Halifax,” said Phillips. South Boston also sends EMT providers out with every call that the rescue squad runs in the town department’s coverage area.

But given the vast expanses of Halifax County, and with rescue squads having to run multiple calls at once some days, the loss of EMT service in Halifax and Scottsburg could affect how quickly providers are able to reach people in medical distress.

“If you live in some of these outlying areas, it may take 15 or 20 minutes for an ambulance to get there because they have so far to come,” said Phillips.

Local firefighters have long played a critical role in emergency medical services in Halifax County. County departments decided in 1986 to start a first responder program to supplement the mission of the Halifax County Rescue Squad. “We were well stocked at the time,” Phillips told supervisors at their monthly meeting on Monday night in Halifax.

“There have been some lives saved in Halifax County because there were people [fire department EMTs] closer to where the problems were,” Phillips added. “Fast forward to the present.”

That present moment is marked by more complicated, expensive and time-consuming training requirements, and a diminishing number of volunteers willing or able to give up hours on end running fire and rescue calls. “These people have to work a job. Some of them have to work multiple jobs,” said Phillips. “You have to make sacrifices to be a fire or EMS volunteer.”

Even the South Boston department, the county’s largest, has felt the impact of declining volunteerism. At one time, said Phillips, the SBFD had 40 volunteer members. The number today is half as large.

“If we didn’t have paid people working with our volunteers, we’d be in the same position as the other departments,” he said.

Halifax and Scottsburg, two of the larger departments after South Boston, suspended their first responder services after an April 22 meeting of the county fire commission. Phillips said the two departments are trying to find volunteers who will go through state-mandated training to become certified EMT providers, but the training can take up to six months.

“They are trying to get some people certified so [both departments] can get back into it,” said Phillips, adding that the re-entry process would be relatively straightforward, since Halifax and Scottsburg would come under the existing county commission license.

The problems flagged during the state inspection, conducted early in the new year, did not involve the quality of EMTS services being provided to people in the community, Phillips continued: “It was more paperwork than anything else. Nothing big, to be honest. Most of it was small, like paperwork, but that stuff has to be done.”

Elsewhere in the county, smaller fire departments have been able to continue first responder calls because someone on the volunteer rolls is available to carry out the work. How much longer that will last, 33 years after fire departments started EMT coverage, remains to be seen.

“You just can’t find people to volunteer any more,” Phillips said. “You almost have to look to paid personnel to cover all these calls, especially in the daytime when people are working jobs.”

Supervisors acknowledged that something may have to be done, soon, to fill in the gaps that open up with fire departments struggling to recruit new members. “It would take $1.4 million to staff all our departments,” said ED-1 supervisor J.T. Davis, who heads the budget and finance committee.

That number, not included in this year’s budget, may be unavoidable in years to come.

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I was a VFD member and an EMT, the state has ruined if for the vol. departments. The BS paperwork has taken precedent over patient care. It all got worse with obama care. Now people will suffer because of government bureaucracy! When are citizens going to demand that the government stop making everything in our lives so burdensome. The EMTS in all depts care about what they do and should not get gigged for forgetting to check a box or getting a form turned in on time. The state has forgotten the end goal is to take care of the patient.


The County has a Fire Commission, the County Administration has a well paid Emergency Services Coordinator, who should be providing more admin support to local fire departments and overseeing paperwork to ensure it gets filed properly. It's true that there is a shortage of properly trained volunteers and the State requires more these days than in decades past. But this needs to be a top down solution where the County simply assists smaller fire departments administratively so they can focus on staffing and training. The County let an excellent man leave employment who had great ideas and was trying to solve this situation five years ago. If you listen to "tax and spend" J.T. Davis, his solution is to simply throw money at the problem and not properly address it. We need good leadership folks, not more taxation and wasteful spending.


The Turbeville fire department has a good used firetruck that they are advertising for sale. It only has 27k miles on it. One of the other fire departments in the county should buy it instead of buying a new truck to save money. The county needs to spend money on the Rescue Squad and hiring paid EMTs instead of spending money on firetrucks and fire stations!


Once upon a time a former Emergency Services Coordinator tried in vain to get the individual fire departments to unite and purchase under the County umbrella for its Firetrucks and overall equipment. It failed mainly due to the egos of the Fire Chiefs and Departments who didn't want to give up some level of control. The County COULD demand that they purchase through them since they are committing annual funding. Fire trucks and equipment should be budgeted in a Capital Improvement Plan and on a rotating basis so all departments are equally equipped. Oh and the Fire Commission is a complete JOKE filled with huge egos. Its high time these department leaders work together for the greater good of Halifax County Taxpayers and quit their peeing contest for perceived power.

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