Answering the Call: First Responders of Greater Prince William

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By Helena Tavares Kennedy

By definition, a “Certified First Responder” is somebody who has completed an intense certification in pre-hospital care—how to quickly assess emergency situations, call an ambulance and administer first aid. This may include postal workers, school bus drivers and manufacturers. However, when most of us refer to first responders, we are thinking of the men and women who respond to our emergency calls, the ones who run toward danger to keep the public safe.

In Case of Emergency

Since the Greater Prince William area includes the county, two independent cities and four incorporated towns, who responds to 911 calls depends on the location and type of emergency. A caller may first reach either the Prince William County Office of Public Safety Communications (OPSC) or call centers for the Manassas or Manassas Park police departments.

If someone reports a fire or medical emergency, OPSC telecommunicators will dispatch services from the fire and rescue units serving that area. Call-takers work directly with all of the fire departments serving the county, cities and towns.

Prince William County Department of Fire & Rescue personnel work together to extract a driver from the wreckage of his vehicle.

Prince William County Department of Fire & Rescue personnel work together to extract a driver from the wreckage of his vehicle.

For police assistance, the 911 system routes calls based on the jurisdiction from which they originate. Calls coming from within the county go to OPSC, where they are dispatched to either the PWC or appropriate town police department.

“Towns in Prince William County, like Occoquan, are all dispatched by PWC police, but we are independent of PWC and have similar reporting to state police,” said Occoquan Police Department Chief Sheldon Levi.

A call from a landline in Manassas or Manassas Park goes directly to the call center for that city. Cell phones can be a little tricky, explained City of Manassas Public Affairs Specialist Patty Prince. Since cell calls are more difficult to locate, the OPSC typically handles them and transfers the call to the appropriate center.

This interconnected 911 system reflects the collaboration among emergency services in Prince William County and the cities of Manassas and Manassas Park.

Policing Together

While Prince William’s 911 system may seem complex, it is an efficient distribution center for the network of first responders operating here. In the realm of law enforcement, Prince William is served by seven police departments and a sheriff, and has a state police presence as well. Recognizing that criminal activity often crosses jurisdictions, personnel from different departments frequently collaborate to keep Prince William safe.

Chief Stephan M. Hudson leads the Prince William County Police Department (PWCPD), the largest of our police departments, with a staff of about 800. Occoquan’s department is the smallest with one full-time and one part-time officer. “The PWC Police Department and the city and smaller police departments work very well together,” said First Sergeant Kim D. Chinn, public information officer for the PWCPD. “We collaborate a lot together on things like the Manassas City and Manassas Park narcotics task force, as criminals cross city lines all the time, so working together is essential.”

To combat large criminal enterprises, police departments across the state also work with each other and with federal law enforcement. Manassas City Police Chief Douglas Keen said that the Northern Virginia Gang Task Force is a great example of this.

BikeEMS at CelebrateAmerica copy

The City of Manassas Fire & Rescue Department EMS Bike Team can maneuver through crowded events to provide medical assistance.

“It’s a group effort from all agencies in Northern Virginia, including state police. Each jurisdiction assigns a supervisor or detective to work on the task force and respond to gang-related issues, because gang issues aren’t just in one city or area, but a regional issue – it goes across boundaries. We are constantly collaborating with each other because so few of these issues we face today stop at the line on the map,” said Keen, chairperson of the task force.

The Prince William County Sheriff’s Office, located in the Prince William County Judicial Center in Manassas, is another ally in keeping the community safe. Sheriff Glendell Hill, elected by citizens of the county and both cities, is serving his third consecutive term. He directs a staff of 97 employees in their primary responsibilities of securing the Judicial Center and serving civil process papers, including protective orders and eviction notices. They also transport and extradite prisoners, investigate fugitives and provide fingerprinting for the Virginia Sex Offender Registry.

Hill added that his office holds concurrent law enforcement jurisdiction with local police departments and stands ready to assist the police in their primary duties as needed.

All in a Day’s Police Work

In addition to the well-known duty of “catching bad guys,” modern police forces take on a myriad of public safety tasks. Traffic control and accident reports, providing school resource officers and crossing guards, administering animal control and issuing taxicab licenses all fall under the purview of the PWCPD. For Virginia State Police, which has its “Area 11” office in Manassas, responsibilities include patrolling of state highways and issuance of motor vehicle registration and driver’s licenses.

Hill said that the Sheriff ’s Office maintains a commitment to community service activities, such as issuing child identification cards, escorting funeral processions and administering Project Lifesaver. This national program uses technology to locate and bring home people with conditions such as Alzheimer’s who sometimes wander and become lost.

Sergeant Mark Hurd prepares to serve process papers, one of the primary duties of the Prince William County Sheriff's Office.

Sergeant Mark Hurd prepares to serve process papers, one of the primary duties of the Prince William County Sheriff’s Office.

In smaller departments, officers may find themselves juggling a variety of duties as well. “Occoquan is a small town, so what I do is totally different than what the larger city or county police departments do,” said Levi. “It’s only me and a part-time officer for Occoquan but we do [have]to talk to local business owners and residents, patrol the area, handle traffic enforcement and conduct office work. We get a wider mix of tasks during our day whereas the larger police departments have dedicated traffic control divisions, desk officers, etc. So even though I’m chief of police, I have so called ‘street cop’ duties as well.”

Officers from all departments may also find themselves on the frontlines of mental health issues. “All of law enforcement struggles with mental health issues among its residents. In reality, we are the first responder for mental health cases,” said Keen. “We get called into situations where we have to evaluate a person’s mental health quickly, take them into temporary custody and wait with them at the hospital until medical personnel take over.”

He explained that because bed space might not be immediately available for these patients, officers may have to wait with their charges for up to seven hours until a bed is found. In one instance, Keen’s department had scheduled six officers on the street, but three of them were tied up at the hospital waiting to turn mental patients over to medical staff, essentially cutting the police presence in half.

A Network of Fire & Rescue Services

Much like its police force, Prince William is served by a network of departments overseeing fire and rescue services. There are 21 fire and rescue stations across Prince William County, 17 of which are owned and run by volunteers. There are also two stations in Manassas and one in Manassas Park.

Volunteer companies predate the Prince William County Department of Fire & Rescue, going all the way back to the formation of the Occoquan Woodbridge Lorton Volunteer Fire
Department (OWL) in 1938. According to county literature, the county hired its first paid firefighter in 1966, along with a fire chief and fire marshal.

Fast forward to the present day, when the county’s fire and rescue services operate under a “combination system,” relying on both volunteer and paid county resources and staff.

“Staff are distributed across the county…every station has career fire and rescue staff at their stations Monday through Friday 6:00 am to 6:00 pm. Career crew [are]on staff at each station when volunteers are typically at work,” said Prince William County Fire Chief Kevin McGee. He added that all department members operate by the same policies and procedures, ensuring consistency of services.

“The advantage is the pooling of all the resources together,” he said. “You might see a truck that says ‘volunteer’ on it but it’s driven by career and vice versa, since they share
equipment regularly.”

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Dale City Volunteer Fire Department Station 10 includes a showcase of department history.

In 2013, this combined system of more than 500 volunteer and career firefighters responded to 38,000 calls for service. McGee said that callers are often surprised to see a fire truck pull up to a medical emergency, rather than an ambulance.

He explained that each fire station has Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) on staff, and some stations also have medic units with paramedics. When a 911 call comes in, dispatchers send the nearest medical help, which might mean that firefighters may be first on the scene. McGee said that the goal is to have basic life support arrive within four minutes of an emergency call, and advanced life support within eight minutes.

Also serving the community is the PWC Fire Marshal’s Office, which provides oversight of fire code compliance, inspections and investigating the origin and causes of fires. Additionally, the county’s 23 marshals participate in joint investigation with local police and issue permits for special hazardous uses, such as fireworks displays.

Like Prince William County, Manassas relies on a combined system of about 90 volunteer and 60 career firefighters. The City of Manassas Fire and Rescue Department, Manassas Volunteer Fire Company and Greater Manassas Volunteer Rescue Squad together answered more than 6,100 emergency calls in Fiscal Year 2014. “The career staff and volunteer members work handin-hand to provide the emergency response services,” said Manassas Fire Chief Brett R. Bowman.

Manassas recently received the Outstanding EMS Agency Award from the Northern Virginia EMS Council. According to a press release issued by the city, “Recipients were selected based on their excellence in Emergency Medical Services.”

Manassas Park, with a staff of 27, has Prince William’s only allcareer force, led by Fire Chief David O. Dixon. Of this personnel, 24 staff the fire station and three serve in administrative tasks. However, all are cross-trained in firefighting and EMS, and 98 percent are trained in advanced life support. The department gets about 2,300 calls in an average year. Of these, 75 percent are for EMS, said Dixon, who started his firefighting career as a volunteer 39 years ago.

Joining Forces

Don’t let the different department names and jurisdictions fool you: When it comes to keeping residents of greater Prince William safe, all of our first responders are on the same team.

“The City of Manassas, Manassas Park and Prince William County essentially operate as one large department,” said Bowman. “We are dispatched and respond together multiple times daily. To assure efficiency and effectiveness, we use the same standard operating procedures and practices to assure seamless delivery of services to the citizens of all three jurisdictions.”

Rescue departments also collaborate by sharing ideas and learning from one another, such as when OWL commissioned the design of two specialized fireboats to handle emergencies on the Potomac River. OWL volunteers worked with the manufacturer, MetalCraft Marine, “to ensure we could meet the demands of our citizens and visitors,” said OWL Chief James McAllister. “Our design now leads an industry standard resulting in these vessels being sold around the world.” Neighboring fire departments that have acquired fireboats based on the OWL designed model include the District of Columbia, Alexandria and Fairfax.

McAllister added that OWL volunteers have been instrumental in conducting several large-scale exercises on the Potomac River as well as participating in the creation of the Potomac River Response policy for the Council of Governments.

Fire and rescue and law enforcement departments also coordinate efforts. “There are many times when fire and rescue and police departments come together,” said Rebecca Barnes, public information officer for OWL. “After a car accident, fire and rescue will shut down a road and local or state police will manage traffic while we get control of a scene, putting out the fire or stabilizing patients.”

She added that in a mass casualty situation, Incident Command Systems (ICS) comes into play. ICS is an operating procedure that assists government agencies and private organizations in working together during large-scale domestic incidents. “During those times, coordination is essential,” said Barnes.

“OWL volunteers have worked closely with area law enforcement agencies for years. Several of our volunteers have been employees of these same agencies, helping to maintain great relationships,” said McAllister.

Dixon summed up the level of service that residents can expect when dialing 911 in Greater Prince William. “We are always trying to do the best we possibly can, to do what’s best for the customer, with dignity and respect regardless of social status or circumstance. All the departments do. It’s what your community,
your neighbors expect,” said Dixon.

Helena Tavares Kennedy is a marketing and communications consultant who also enjoys freelance writing and blogging at LivingGreenDayByDay.com. She has lived in Prince William for more than 13 years with her family and thanks those who have served and currently serve our communities, putting their lives at risk each and every day to better all our lives. She can be reached at [email protected]

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