New Kent Fire Chief aims for SAFER, more effective departments

NEW KENT – New Kent County Fire Chief Rick Opett is hoping for safer departments with better response times.

Opett applied for a SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant on August 30. The grant would help the four county stations provide better coverage for the 223 square-foot county.

If the grant application is approved by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), the New Kent Fire Department (NKFD) would receive six full-time firefighters, totaling $668,000 over two years.

The county would also receive $2.25 million (over four years) for volunteer recruitment and retention.

"This portion of the grant would help offset traveling expenses, such as mileage, if the volunteer is driving a personal vehicle," said Opett. "It would also help us with fire station upgrades, such as in the bunk areas, and pay for entry level physicals."

The grant funds are non-matching, and wouldn't require money from the county, he added.

Currently, there are 57 volunteer firefighters/EMTs, with 22 new trainees coming soon, and one ambulance at each station: Station 1 (Providence Forge), Station 2 (Quinton), Station 3 (Eltham), and Station 4 (Lanexa).

"Sometimes when an EMS is called, it closes the station down because it has to wait for the ambulance to come back before it can respond to other calls," said Opett.

"Instead, one of the stations miles away from the incident must respond. This adds critical minutes."

Though the NKFD averages a 10-minute response time, such an instance can result in a 20-minute or more response time.

The response time is often cut down, however, thanks to mutual aid from the Town of West Point, James City County, Henrico County and Hanover County Fire Departments.

Though the national standard is four responders to every station, all county stations are currently understaffed. The Providence Forge and Eltham stations are the only two stations that are manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Quinton and Lanexa stations are both manned five days a week, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. (Peak time is 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.)

According to Opett, because of its central location, the Station 1in Providence Forge is the most active of the four stations, and would receive the additional grant-funded firefighters.

"It's always an issue of having enough people to man the stations and address the eight or nine calls we get a day, especially with such a large county," said Opett.

"With the grant-funded positions, we would be able to have two people responding and four people hanging back in the station for better central staffing."

The county receives nearly 3,200 calls a year, which prompted the NKFD and New Kent staff to look into the need for additional fire stations in the county.

County officials are looking at the possibility of constructing a police/fire station along Route 106 (Emmaus Church Road) in the Talleysville/Providence Forge area. The Farms of New Kent proffered $750,000 for the station, located near the Visitor's Center, which sits on a five-acre parcel.

The possibility of a Bottom's Bridge station is also being discussed, however, nothing official has been recorded.

If both fire stations are proposed, approved, and built, residents could expect to see them open around FY16, Opett said.

Though the county won't receive the SAFER grant results until anywhere from winter 2013 to spring 2014, Opett is hopeful.

"Right now, we're doing everything we can to give the best coverage around the county," said Opett.

"We're currently doing more with less, but we are always looking to improve our services, response time, and quick turnarounds."

For more information on the New Kent County Fire Department or volunteering, please visit: http://www.nkfr.net.