The Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors on Thursday voted 3-2 to appoint a Board of Directors to the Flint Hill Volunteer Fire Company, effectively removing its current leadership following years of tumultuous relations between the company and county.
The move was done to eschew a recommendation from a lower body to defund and dismantle the fire company, and instead work to rebuild and reform an organization mired in dysfunction.
The list of appointees, which includes a new fire chief and four directors, was compiled by Chair and Wakefield Supervisor Debbie Donehey, whose district includes the fire company. Donehey said the appointees were chosen after “diligent” outreach across her district. The appointees are: Chief David Jarrell, Directors Dave Bailey, Tim Bills, Patrick O’Malley and Dr. Hugh Hill.
Hampton Supervisor Keir Whitson, Stonewall-Hawthorne Supervisor Van Carney and Donehey voted in favor of the resolution, while Piedmont Supervisor Christine Smith and Jackson Supervisor Ron Frazier voted in opposition.
“My citizens, when I walk around and talk to people in the Wakefield district, want something to change, and to do the same thing over and over again for three, four, five years … is not going to change anything,” Donehey said. “We are going to have an accident that we will not be able to resolve.”
When choosing appointees, Donehey said she was looking at residents with fire and rescue experience, awareness of the issues at the company, and the ability within the board to gain back the medical license to run calls.
Donehey’s resolution is the most significant action the county has taken in recent years to address ongoing issues at the Flint Hill Volunteer Fire Company. Earlier this month, the county’s Public Safety Committee recommended that the Board of Supervisors dissolve the company in an effort to address concerns about its ability to meet the terms of its service agreement with the county. Supervisors agreed that dissolving the fire company would be a disservice to the county.
Former Flint Hill fire company leadership did not return a request for comment.
Newly-hired Chief David Jarrell served for about two years at the Sperryville Volunteer Fire Company and on the Fire Levy Board in 2019 and 2020. Jarrell previously volunteered at the Occoquan-Woodbridge-Lorton Volunteer Fire Department in Prince William County, where he held a series of certifications and ended his tenure serving as a fire captain.
Donehey reached out to Jarrell to come on board the new leadership at the Flint Hill company, and Jarrell said he “knew there was a community in need.”
“I think I need to come out of retirement to help stabilize this program, and so as a result of that, I ended up writing what I call a revitalization plan,” Jarrell said. His plan is set to take place over the next 60 days, and in the meantime, the company is still running calls on dual dispatch.
The company’s rescue squad has not been able to respond to calls since last March when its certification with the Virginia Department of Emergency Services was not renewed. In November, its fire department was placed on dual dispatch, meaning another volunteer fire company is simultaneously dispatched to calls in the Flint Hill region. This, according to Emergency Services Coordinator Sean Polster, was due to “poor response performance and inability to respond on fire and rescue incidents.”
The new leadership appointed last week will serve a one-year term and be responsible for the rules set forth in the resolution. Within 60 days, the Board of Directors must submit a “revitalization plan” to the county that includes a detailed analysis of the staffing structure and certification statuses; safety compliance policies; a financial management plan; a plan to restore EMS services; and an analysis of the company membership’s ability to provide fire and rescue services using only volunteer firefighters.
The county initially considered conducting a forensic audit on the Flint Hill company at the suggestion of the Virginia State Police. Assistant County Administrator Bonnie Jewell reached out to three audit firms, and said all three noted that a forensic audit would cost between $15,000 and $25,000 and are typically done with an end goal of prosecution, which the county did not want to pursue.
There is currently an ongoing investigation by the Virginia State Police on the Flint Hill company for financial management concerns raised as a result of questionable requests for county funds.
Smith and Frazier voted against the resolution because they weren’t presented with the list of appointees until Wednesday evening and did not have an opportunity to meet the appointees or ask them questions, they said. Donehey said she spent weeks putting the final list together, and the members who voted in favor of the resolution said they trusted Donehey’s due diligence. The appointees were not present at Thursday’s meeting.
Smith initially put forward a motion to send the resolution to the Fire Levy Board and Public Safety Committee for review, and then regroup in 60 days to evaluate potential next steps. That motion was struck down 3-2, with Whitson, Donehey and Carney voting against it, and Smith and Frazier voting in favor.
“We have no idea what the fiscal impact might be,” Frazier said. “And yet we’re putting five people in positions … and we’re tasking them with the requirement to come up with a fiscal impact statement.”
The three-person majority expressed an urgency to address the prolonged issues at the company and did not want to wait to take action. Carney said, “we’re responsible if people die,” referring to the elected officials, and it’s up to the Board of Supervisors “to do the heavy lifting.”
Whitson, who had a near-fatal heart attack in Wisconsin last July and only recently returned to in-person meetings, said he believes in the importance of having a reliable fire and rescue company. He became emotional when recounting his heart attack, and said the three-minute response time from the local fire and rescue company saved his life.
“It’s our job, I believe it’s what I signed up for, and that’s to do everything possible to protect human health and safety, and to that end, in this chain of survival, if there’s a weak link … I really see that as a problem,” Whitson said.