POWHATAN – After serving for several months as acting fire and rescue chief, veteran firefighter Phil Warner stepped into the role full-time on Aug. 1.
Warner, who previously served as the assistant chief, brings almost 30 years of volunteer and career firefighter experience to the role. He got his start as a volunteer with the Fine Creek Volunteer Fire Department in 1990 and became a life member there after 15 years.
He was a career firefighter for the Henrico Division of Fire, where he retired in 2017 after 21 years.
He worked for Powhatan County part-time for 16 years before taking on the role of acting chief in April, when the previous chief, Steve Singer, went out on medical leave. Warner also had served as acting chief for more than two and a half years before Singer was hired in 2014.
Previous experience with the position combined with having good relationships with both paid staff and volunteers made Warner’s time as acting chief an easy transition and helped in his decision to take on the full-time role, he said.
“What really convinced me to do it – because clearly I was retired and enjoying my part-time work with the county – was the support I had received in the past three months from the career side and the volunteer side. When the county administrator made the offer, it was an easy choice after the support I received from the volunteers and career side,” Warner said.
While the fire and rescue department grew and made many advances while Singer was chief, his last few months in the job were marked by vocal discontent among the county’s fire and rescue volunteers and a contentious proposal to almost double the size of the county’s paid fire and rescue personnel.
When announcing he was appointing Warner to his new post, county administrator Ted Voorhees did not discuss the details of Singer’s departure from his position but expressed his appreciation for Singer’s contributions to Powhatan County over the past four years.
“Chief Singer addressed numerous policy and procedural issues, recruited the county’s first full-time career firefighters, improved and modernized equipment and apparatus, secured grants and assisted in replacement of the computer-aided dispatch system. We wish him well in his future endeavors,” said Voorhees.
While he has been acting chief, Warner said fire administration had already begun to address some of the issues raised by volunteers and the Powhatan County Board of Supervisors in recent months.
On May 6, the supervisors and the county’s first responders sat down for a workshop where they took a larger look at the problems within fire and rescue and how those may be addressed in a way that gives volunteers back the No. 1 thing they said was missing – a voice in their own department.
Since that workshop, two new committees have been formed – one to look at how the department tracks data and the other to evaluate current policies, Warner said.
Serious doubts were raised about the fire and rescue data presented by Singer in March to justify asking for $1.18 million in new paid personnel in a plan to bring more comprehensive coverage to the county.
Many decisions regarding fire and rescue are based on data, so everyone involved – whether paid or volunteer – should have input on what data is collected to show the health and growth of the department, Warner said.
“We are all going to agree on the parameters of that data and we are going to develop it, and review it monthly with all parties involved, so we know month to month the health of our department,” he said.
The volunteers also said they didn’t feel like they had enough input in some of the department’s policies, Warner said. A new policy committee headed by a volunteer has been tasked with reviewing the most disputed policies. The committee of volunteers and career staff will present their findings to fire administration, which will “make adjustments as necessary based on their recommendations.”
Warner said he believes that in his almost three decades serving in the county in volunteer and paid positions he has fostered good, open communications with local first responders that will help him moving forward.
He hopes to hold a town hall-style meeting with all of the local first responders – paid, volunteer and contract – to introduce himself and answer questions.
He plans to follow that up by visiting two volunteer companies each month, meaning that he will have the opportunity to interact with personnel at all five fire houses and the rescue squad at least once each quarter “to keep those lines of communication open.”
Warner said he is just as passionate about fire and rescue as he was when he moved to Powhatan in 1990 and started volunteering. At the time he had graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a Bachelor of Science in business administration and management but was working in construction because it paid the bills. He said he was talked into volunteering at Company 4 and got hooked on it.
“I got bit by the fire department bug and the whole fire department culture hooked me and still has me. I just loved the camaraderie and the so-called brotherhood/sisterhood that comes along with it,” he said.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.