Crozet Fire Department Welcomes Career Staff

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Captain Reuben Cowles, Fire Chief Will Schmertzler, and Battalion Commander Gary Dillon stand next to the CVFD Command vehicle, with the First Due fire truck behind it. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Until this month, the Crozet Volunteer Fire Dept. (CVFD) website read “All Volunteer – All the Time.” So it has been since the department’s founding in 1910. But that motto has just been removed. Funded by a portion of Albemarle County’s $1.9 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant, on September 8 the CVFD welcomed three paid career staff members who will answer calls during the day, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. The federal grant was awarded to Albemarle County thanks to the sponsorship of U.S. Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. The grant allowed Albemarle Co. Fire and Rescue (ACFR) to hire ten new firefighters, split between Crozet and Pantops. As an added bonus, the original requirement for matching funds to be paid by the County was waived due to COVID. 

“We have been planning for this since 2017,” explained Gary Dillon, who completed his term as Fire Chief at the end of June and now serves as Battalion Chief of Administration. Will Schmertzler was elected to succeed Dillon, taking over the reins on July 1. “The decision to request paid staffing was one not taken lightly after being an all-volunteer station for over 100 years,” stated the CVFD Facebook page that day. “Crozet has grown exponentially over the past few years,” Dillon continued. “We were concerned that our volunteer staff could no longer meet the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) Standards for training and response times. Our primary concern is to fully protect the community.”

CVFD volunteers greeted the three new career staff—Reuben Cowles from the Earlysville station, James Rowse from Seminole Trail, and new firefighter Jeriel Samuels—with open arms. The 9/8 Facebook post continued, “many CVFD members came to the firehouse this morning at 5:30 a.m. to greet our new ACFR staff and share light refreshments.” 

“We have a wonderful relationship so far,” Chief Schmertzler stated. “The addition of daytime paid professional staff takes off a lot of stress,” he continued. “They’ve helped by making suggestions about how best to equip our trucks, because they know what new technology is out there. They’ve been inventorying everything, testing the equipment, and making checklists for the volunteers. With limited volunteer staffing, we could not check every truck every night. It gives us peace of mind knowing these things are being done. We really appreciate their expertise.”

In the 2010 Census, Crozet’s population was 5,500; estimates now place 10,000 residents within three miles of downtown, with more developments in the works. CVFD’s “First Due” coverage area is the largest in Albemarle County, extending from Batesville in the south to Brown’s Cove in the north, and from Afton in the west to Owensville Rd. in the east. “A lot of the people who have moved here are used to a certain level of timely emergency service,” Dillon said. “We currently have 45 active volunteers,” Schmertzler added. “And we just graduated seven more from the Firefighter I class. But all of us have jobs. Volunteerism has declined nationwide because most people have two-income families, and businesses want you to do more with less. When we leave work during the day, we get behind and some even lose pay. Back when Acme, ConAgra, and Barnes Lumber were located right here in the Crozet community, they would let volunteers leave work as soon as they heard the siren. But that’s changed.” 

Volunteer firefighters are required to do a minimum of 240 hours of training; certified professional firefighters do 400+ hours, with ongoing continuing education to develop additional skills such as tech rescue, emergency medical technician (EMT), and officer training. Cowles, for example, is a paramedic. “The new staff train for two hours a day and conduct quarterly drills. They exercise the trucks. Albemarle County firefighter James Rowse is a tower (ladder truck) operator, so he drives around Crozet to find places where the tower could be used, and practices. It’s a 95-foot ride up there in the bucket!” said Dillon. 

“We are an All Hazards Fire Dept.,” said Schmertzler with a laugh. “We respond to calls for structure fires, auto accidents, alarm activations, trees down, lines down in storms, cat in a tree, you name it. If they don’t know who to call, they call us.” When the moving truck got stranded after taking too sharp a turn leaving the downtown parking lot recently, causing damage to the Modern Barber Shop’s roof, guess who responded to close Crozet Ave., direct traffic, and keep everyone safe? These days, they average about 60 calls a month.”

In 2019, “the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors adopted service objectives for fire and EMS that allow us to objectively evaluate our performance. The response time represents the amount of time it takes for the first emergency apparatus and personnel to arrive at the incident after being notified. For a development area, the recommended response time is 8 minutes or less, 90% of the time; for a rural area, it is 21 minutes or less, 90% of the time.

“We studied the data. We were concerned our response times were starting to fall short,” Dillon said. “Our calls have been increasing around 10% each year, and we just couldn’t meet the demand.” In 2015, the CVFD received 550 calls for service; by 2019, this had swelled to 765 calls.

The Crozet Volunteer Fire Dept. recently welcomed three career staff (wearing dark ACFR shirts). Front row (left to right): James Rowse, Fire Chief Will Schmertzler, Battalion Commander Gary Dillon, and volunteer Zachary Simpson. Back row (left to right): Jeriel Samuels, Day Captain Reuben Cowles, Evening Captain Chris Rowland, and Kevin Winstead. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

“In 2019 there were 26 calls we failed to respond to at all, 21 in our First Due area. Oftentimes, calls would be re-dispatched to the Ivy station to cover for us. After a series of meetings with ACFR Chief Eggleston and Deputy Chief Puckett, we called a special meeting in August 2019 with CVFD lifetime inactive, lifetime active, and active members, so that everybody’s voice could be heard.” The meeting presentation showed that CVFD’s response times averaged 9.35 min. in the developed areas of Crozet and 20.54 min. in the rural areas. “At that meeting, the decision was unanimous to ask Albemarle Co. for additional staffing.” Dillon’s presentation also stated, “This option does not mean that we as an organization failed. It means that we recognized rapid residential and business development and a declining local workforce and chose to be proactive in providing the best level of service for our community.” Dillon added, “the decision was hard, but it was the right thing to do.

“This is what a model career/volunteer station needs to look like,” he said. “We knew from the start it had to be built on trust. We see it as a collaboration based on relationships and respect. There are no locked doors. We are very fortunate to get the crew we did, people who are capable of building relationships. The day and evening crews hand off information to each other.” Reuben Cowles, captain of the day crew of career staff, agreed. “They’ve created a welcoming atmosphere,” he said. “It feels like family.” For more on the CVFD’s history, visit crozetfire.org.  

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