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Alexandria Fire Department suspends annual leave for stretched thin first responders as COVID numbers reach all-time high

Another single-day record for new COVID cases was set in Alexandria today, and the understaffed Alexandria Fire Department has made “vital changes” to contend with rising infections among staffers, including the temporary suspension of annual leave.

There were 460 new cases of COVID-19 reported in Alexandria on Today (Dec. 30), a 22% jump over the previous record of 376 cases set on Christmas day.

“During this time, we will temporarily suspend the authorization of annual leave,” AFD leadership wrote in a Monday email to City Manager Mark Jinks. “The Alexandria Fire Department is implementing vital strategic changes in response to the highly transmissible Omicron variation of the COVID-19 virus and the current staffing challenges. AFD is experiencing an increase in daily positive cases.”

The department currently has 22 members who are non-operational due to COVID, and 29 confirmed infections in the last month. While the number of infections is relatively low, AFD is currently understaffed by 23%, with 281 first responders working in a department that needs 347 to be fully staffed.

Consequently, long-standing staffing issues at the department have resulted in first responders working exorbitant overtime hours.

“Over the last three months, I’ve worked 1,004.25 hours,” AFD Captain Sean Europe told City Council in the public comment portion of a recent meeting. “That means I’ve worked, on average, close to 80 hours per week. Eighty hours a week as a firefighter. I don’t even know if that’s legal. I’m working twice as much, while getting paid less, than the people doing the exact same job just up the road.”

Department-wide over the last three months, AFD staff have worked more than 6,200 forced overtime hours and 10,500 of voluntary overtime.

Europe says he has 42 days of paid annual leave that he can’t use because of staffing.

I want to take a vacation, to spend time with my family and friends – but we’re so short staffed I can’t,” he said.

The International Association of Firefighters’ Local 2141 union stated that suspending annual leave is a move that should be made in the collective bargaining process, on which it says the city is dragging its feet. The union also says that the city’s proposal for compensation and staffing increases isn’t enough.

“We hired a labor relations agency, and they put forward that nothing that is up for negotiation through collective bargaining be changed,” Jeremy McClayton, an organizer for the union, told ALXnow.

Other moves by APD include:

  • Taking fire Engine 205 (serving Old Town, Del Ray and Potomac Yard) out of service.
  • The Advanced Life Support (ALS) provider from Engine 205 will relocate to Truck 205, converting Truck 205 to an ALS suppression unit.
  • Ambulance 204 will be placed in service on a 24-hour three shift schedule, and holdovers will be used to maintain staffing

Fire Chief Corey Smedley said over the summer that he was concerned with the number of hours his staff have worked.

“Some of them were working up to 72 hours straight, and that was not safe,” Smedley said. “I cannot continue and I did not continue to allow them to put themselves and for us to allow them to put themselves into harm’s way.”

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