Fire Chief Smith presents 21st century vision for the Charlottesville Fire Department

In the early part of the City Council meeting, Fire Chief Hezedean Smith has a long conversation with the five-elected officials. Smith has been in the position since December 2020 and he wanted to reflect on the time so far. 

“There’s been a lot of tragedy within our community and fortunately our firefighters, they remain committed in terms of serving the community to their fullest, in spite of COVID and in spite of all the other challenges that they face,” Smith said. 

Last year, a structure fire on Cherry Avenue killed two people, the first fatalities from a fire since 2010. Smith said another challenge was the fire on January 13 at the Charlottesville Towers apartment complex in North Downtown. No one was killed, but many residents were displaced and returned to smoke-damaged units. 

“We’re committed and we’re embracing the forces that are impacting the 21st century fire and emergency services in our community, certainly in alignment with what’s going on across the United States, “ Smith said. “Charlottesville is no stranger to multiple all-hazards type of incidents that we have to be prepared to respond to.” 

During his time, the Fire Department has adopted a strategic plan which is “employee-driven.” Chief Smith said the goal is to become a “21st century fire service” as defined by a white paper issued by the Center for Public Safety Excellence. (read the white paper) (EMS Agenda 2050)

“And alongside that, there’s an EMS agenda for the future which kind of looks at how you should prepare yourselves now as we move forward into the future and what are the elements related to an EMS system?”  Smith asked. “Fortunately for us we are a fire-based EMS system service model which is a little bit different than it was years ago when we were just focused only on fire. We are an all-hazards department.”

Before Smith arrived, the Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded Charlottesville a nearly $3.5 million grant under the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response program. That allowed the fire department to hire 15 additional personnel. 

A slide from Chief Smith’s presentation (download)

Last year the dispatch system was changed in order to speed up response times. 

“About eight minutes, ideally,” Smith said. “That’s the framework that we have established and ultimately we have demonstrated through a GIS analysis to confirm that we should be able to arrive at an incident within that period of time.” 

That dispatch system also matches the system used by Albemarle County in order to help regional cooperation and mutual aid. 

“And we are just basically trying to align our protocols and our response model to meet the needs of our community so at any one time we know where all of our units are located in the city,” Smith said. 

Smith said that later this month the Fire Department will release an app called PulsePoint to alert people to others who are having cardiac arrests nearby in the hopes of getting cardio-pulmonary resuscitation happening as early as possible. 

“We provide CPR training, we identify neighborhoods that are at risk, and education them on proper living and things of that sort,” Smith said. “It’s not just about running with lights and sirens to medical calls and car accidents and things of that nature. It’s actually becoming more engaged in our community and educating our community and hopefully they can recognize early signs and symptoms of strokes, heart attacks, and things of that sort.”

Smith said data shows that the 10th and Page neighborhood in particular is first in cardiac arrests and third in diabetic emergencies.  

Last year, representatives from the Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad (CARS) complained to Council that the new dispatch system shuts them out of service calls. Smith said he has since met with their chief and other top officials and said they will play a role in the future. 

“One of their goals, goal 3, looks at mobile integrated health, exploring roles of the providers with mental health,” Smith said. “CARS’ community involvement, CPR training, stop-the-bleed training, all of those things are of essence for us,” Smith said. 

Smith’s appearance before Council came at the same time the budget for FY23 is being put together, including the five-year capital plan. The draft budget shows an additional spending of $1.2 million for a replacement for the bypass fire station, for a total of $4.2 million in authorization for bonds that have not yet been issued. Smith hopes Council will continue to support this expenditure and consider others in the future. 

“It’s dilapidated, it’s sad,” Chief Smith said. “I don’t know if you’ve been in there but it’s unfortunate that our firefighters have to live there. Ultimately the Ridge Street fire station also has to be on the roadmap as well because that is just as old if not older with cracks in the wall that we’ve been monitoring for a number of years.”

The Ridge Street station was built in 1959. The bypass station was built in 1950, according to the city’s property records. 

Senior Budget Analyst Krisy Hammill said that additional money should fully fund the project. 

Chief Smith also said firefighters also have to be paid more and said they are not making as much as those in Albemarle. 

“I am pleading with you to support our firefighters because it ties in with retention, it ties in with recruitment, it ties in with their families,” Smith said. “I can probably count on one hand how many of them live in the city of Charlottesville. They travel for hours sometime to come and serve this community.” 

Before you go: The time to write and research of this article is covered by paid subscribers to Charlottesville Community Engagement. In fact, this particular installment comes from the February 8, 2022 edition of the program. To ensure this research can be sustained, please consider becoming a paid subscriber or contributing monthly through Patreon.

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