NEWS- Squad v. squad: Fire & Rescue vie to save time, lives

Both organizations are dedicated to saving lives, and both say they don't want this issue to come across as a fight. But that's exactly what's happened.

When Charlottesville presented its proposed 2007-2008 budget of $123 million, almost $1 million was earmarked for two ambulances and eight emergency staffers to "supplement" the venerable Charlottesville Albemarle Rescue Squad.

What wasn't clear, until CARS president Larry Claytor called a press conference March 16, was that none of that money was actually going to CARS. Instead, the city wants to buy its own ambulances and hire its own staffers– and then charge citizens $400 for ambulance service.

Response times are the reason Charlottesville Fire Department Chief Charles Werner and former chief/City Councilor Julian Taliaferro cite for pulling the City into the rescue squad business.

CARS has provided such service since 1960 with volunteers at no cost to the public.Werner and Taliaferro criticized CARS response rates.

"Why take 26 minutes to get up behind Venable School?" asks Taliaferro, who produces a list of CARS responses in excess of 10 minutes and blames some of them on people who "don't know the city and are getting lost."

"We respectfully disagree with that list," says Claytor. "We're doggone close to national standards," maintains Claytor. "We started getting bombarded with information from the city saying our response times are bad. Why are we being attacked?"

The national standard for emergency response is four minutes for basic life support and eight minutes for advanced life support. 

"You cannot cover the city of Charlottesville adequately from one location," says Taliaferro. "Even the fire department response times have gone up."

Werner and Taliaferro suggest that CARS is in denial. "Larry Claytor says there's  no response time problem," says Werner. "Yet in a letter to [Albemarle] county, he's saying there is a problem. The fact they have three county medics there indicates there is a problem."

Albemarle County assigns three people to CARS during daytime hours when volunteers are likely to be at their day jobs. The county also contributes over $150,000 to CARS, says Albemarle Fire Chief Dan Eggleston, as well as money toward capital improvements. 

Werner wants two ambulances, a one-time expenditure of about $400,000, and says it will cost about $600,000 a year for the eight new firefighter/medics and one administrative person. The budget also calls for a contracted medical director and salary increases for 11 current firefighter/medics. 

He also points out that CARS has not responded to offers of money from Charlottesville and that additional staffing alone can't solve the response time problem because the McIntire Road facility is at capacity. "There's not enough room at CARS, and we have the locations," says Werner.

City Council votes on the budget April 10; most councilors seem to be leaning toward Charlottesville getting some paid rescue squad, and former fire chief Taliaferro says he doesn't see any conflict in voting on the budget for the organization he used to head. "It's not benefiting me," he observes, "except I'll get a decent response if I need one."

City Council candidate Jennifer McKeever is looking at the expenditure from a taxpayer perspective. "We wouldn't want expansion of these services without meaningful public dialogue," she says. "I don't believe it's a fire department/rescue squad issue as much as a taxpayer issue."

Another taxpayer issue that periodically comes up is why Charlottesville and Albemarle still maintain separate fire departments. A consultant's study is due any day now that will be a report card on both organizations. Should such a merger ever occur, where would CARS fit?

Also in CARS' future is the Meadowcreek Parkway whose interchange will likely eat the rescue squad's 50-year-old base. "If our building is taken, where are we going to move?" asks Claytor. "That could affect our response times."

Werner says he's disappointed the issue has become so public. "It's just one of those major changes," he says. "It's about people, their dedication, and loyalty to an organization. The key thing is to focus on patient care."


"We started hearing rumors back in the fall [Charlottesville] was going to quote unquote take over the rescue squad," says Charlottesville Albemarle Rescue Squad president Larry Claytor.