COLONIAL BEACH, Va. (WRIC) — The blue and white ambulance is a familiar sight to residents of Colonial Beach, a small bay-side community on Virginia’s Northern Neck, appearing not only at the scene of emergencies, but also at local football games and other community events.
Run by about twenty volunteers, the 72-year-old Colonial Beach Volunteer Rescue Squad is a pillar of the community – and now, it’s facing an abrupt decertification that would end its operations.
Emergency services in Colonial Beach are managed through Westmoreland County, in which the town is situated, and rely on a mix of volunteer squads like the CBVRS and professional centers managed directly by the county.
In addition to managing the fund the CBVRS uses to run its operations, the county is required to endorse a certification allowing the squad to operate emergency services in a designated area.
Reverend Nick Szobota leads the local episcopal church and, in his spare time, serves as an EMT and president of the Colonial Beach Volunteer Rescue Squad.
“If our certification, which expires on April 30, is not renewed, then we can’t operate as an EMS agency,” he said.
That’s exactly what will be under discussion at a special meeting of the Westmoreland County Board of Supervisors scheduled for 5:00 pm on Friday, April 22.
Timothy Trivett is a member of that board whose district covers part of the town of Colonial Beach. He says that the decertification is being discussed because a county attorney advised county manager Norm Risavi that he couldn’t legally sign the certification.
That’s because, according to county authorities, the CBVRS has shown “a response time outside of what has been pre-determined as acceptable.”
The standard in question is a county emergency response plan, formulated locally in accordance with state law.
“This has essentially been a potential issue for ten years, during which the county administrator has continued to sign off on recertification,” Szobota said ahead of the meeting. “So part of the question that we have for tonight is, if it is not currently legal for him to sign off on recertification due to those requirements not being met, why was it legal in 2020 and over the past ten years for him to do so?”
What’s at Stake
If the decertification goes through, the CBVRS would be forced to stop responding to emergencies in Colonial Beach. That would likely shift the burden of ambulance service to one of the county’s professional squads.
The nearest one, a county official told 8News, was at Oak Grove, around 7 minutes away from the town.
But the same official said there was not yet a formal contingency plan in place if services were abruptly ended on April 30. Instead, he said formulating that plan would be the responsibility of the board of supervisors – and possibly a topic of discussion at their meeting.
Colonial Beach Mayor Robin Schick issued a statement on Facebook opposing the decertification, saying the move would only worsen emergency response times in the small community.
“What upsets me even more about this is that Colonial Beach is the furthest point from any hospital, its further from here to Tappahannock and to Mary Washington than the rest of the county,” she wrote. “And yet service coming from Oak Grove would add 15-20 minutes to that critical time.”
Szobota said that the squad’s importance went beyond simply bringing people to the hospital.
“Even at the points where there’s not a necessity for transport to a hospital, our presence is crucial in terms of providing comfort and care for members of our community who are in crisis,” he said.
Calling on the Community
Ahead of the Friday night meeting, Szobota called on residents of Colonial Beach and nearby communities to show up to the board meeting at the George D. English, Sr. Memorial Building in Montross.
But the board has been as blindsided by the threat of decertification as everyone else.
“I knew nothing about none of this,” said Supervisor Timothy Trivett.
Trivett said he and the other board members learned of it only last week when he and another board member were approached by the county administration to hold a private meeting to discuss the matter.
The only reason a public meeting is now being held is that the county realized a small portion of the CBVRS’s response area lay within a third board member’s district – and a meeting between more than two board members is required by law to take place publicly.
As for the possibility that the CBVRS might dissolve altogether, Trivett said, “I’m not gonna be a party to that.”
“It’s not about numbers to me, it’s about showing up to save somebody’s life,” he added, saying that he would work to find a way for the CBVRS to stay in operation.
Szobota recognized that the Colonial Beach squad has faced some difficulties, many of them dating back years, and he said he was open to finding a compromise with the county.
“We’re a volunteer organization. We have, at this point, a certain capacity in terms of the volunteers we can provide,” he said. “We have plans to increase those, and we’re interested in working with the county to come up with a reasonable response plan that our organization can fulfill.”
The board’s meeting will be open to residents, but it’s unclear whether there will be a period for public comment. The meeting can also be viewed online on the county’s Facebook page.