Fire department pay battle heats up as firefighters say staffing issues put public safety at risk

Fire Department recruits training on Feb. 14, 2020. (Staff photo by James Cullum)

The dispersal of the heavy rescue squad was the breaking point for the Alexandria Fire Department, a representative of the local union said.

Jeremy McClayton, organizer for the International Association of Firefighters Local 2141, said the unit — which handles construction site emergencies, operates the jaws of life in car crashes, and performs flooding rescues — was dispersed to fill gaps in staffing across the department. For a fire department seeing a widespread exodus and forced overtime, it was a step too far.

IAFF Local 2141 recently submitted an open letter and public campaign to CityManager Mark Jinks and the City Council outlining concerns about the impact of understaffing both on public safety and department morale.

According to the letter:

The City’s prolonged mismanagement and underfunding of our Fire Department has not only demonstrated that the City Manager and/or City Council do not properly support our emergency personnel, but that they are actively deciding to provide diminished emergency services at the risk of potential harm to the citizens, businesses and visitors of Alexandria. It is with this in mind that we bring these issues to the forefront before this crisis escalates to a point that causes unnecessary harm to the community we serve.

When the city has a flooding or construction site emergency, or a car crash that requires the jaws of life, McClayton said the fire department has to get the various members of the old heavy rescue squad away from their assignments to wherever the emergency is, which takes time, or rely on the mutual aid assistance from Fairfax or Arlington County.

The letter said another critical component is the shortage of Advanced Life Support (ALS) personnel. While there is at least one ALS-trained person per station, McClayton said the goal should be to have one per ambulance. ALS personnel are qualified to perform medical duties above basic CPR, and McClayton said it’s often not clear until emergency personnel are out on the scene what will be required.

“That was actually the turning point for us,” McClayton said. “There’s only so much we can take. The internal stuff, that’s whatever, we want to handle that in collective bargaining, but I don’t want the ambulance providers to show up and get chewed out because they can’t [rescue someone].”

McClayton said many of those who haven’t already fled the department are attempting to. Throughout the Alexandria Fire Department, McClayton said only eight live in the city of Alexandria. The department has also been plagued by holdovers — where someone finishes up an up-to 24 hour shift only to be told that they are required to stay for another 24 hours.

“We have someone who is a medic who has been held over so many times with forced overtime,” McClayton said. “That means you have a 24 hour shift, it ends at 7 a.m., and at 6:55 you’re told to stay another 24 hours. Her husband is running the risk of getting fired because they have to change up child care. You shouldn’t have to sacrifice that in order to serve the community.”

Mayor Justin Wilson said holdover problem and the staffing issues are problems the city needs to address. Despite those issues, Wilson said the city has made progress over the years on fixing some of those issues.

“Over the last decade, the city has significantly and dramatically increased the investment in our fire department and increased the workforce to get ourselves to four person staffing on each apparatus,” Wilson said. “We have applied for and received multiple federal grants and used that to significantly invest in our fire staffing. We historically had an understaffed fire department compared to our neighbors, with three firefighters per apparatus and we have have increased that to four.”

Wilson also said that one of the concerns, that the city manager would force the department to close a station due to staffing shortages, won’t happen.

Wilson said earlier plans for a boost to fire department pay were hamstrung by the COVID budget and other issues.

“A couple of things have gone wrong,” Wilson said. “One: we’ve had a bad summer, with a lot of folks out, COVID, various other things going on that have strained our workforce. We had people leaving due to pay and compensation issues that we still have to address. We have a class starting now that will be on the street in several months that will help relieve some of that pressure… The manager’s proposed budget Pre-COVID had large investments in public safety and pay and compensation increases. Unfortunately those were removed due to COVID.”

Wilson said that while the city added new positions to the department and worked to blend medics and firefighters into one job, the city has had difficulties on both fronts.

“We were one of only two departments that had standalone paramedics,” Wilson said. “Every other department had all personnel that could staff for the fire department or an ambulance. A bunch of people did train to do both, but not as many as expected. It’s a bunch of different things going on that have created this situation. We added positions, but struggled to fill them. That’s the big picture.”

Now, the city and the IAFF are entering collective bargaining discussions for better pay, but Wilson said it will never reach neighboring Fairfax County.

“Fairfax has always been an outlier in funding,” Wilson said. “We’re not going to pay more than Fairfax, that’s just not a reality. The proposed budget last year had significant increases in public safety pay, those were things that had to be scrapped.”

McClayton said it’s unlikely Alexandria will lead the region in firefighter funding, but said more should be done to at least make the department competitive.

“When Loudoun County had a job opening, 20 of our guys applied for it,” McClayton said. “Alexandria has to be in the middle of the pack. Right now, King George County has a higher opening salary… [This] should be a priority for any local government.”

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