Tensions are running high within the Alexandria Fire Department, as racism, sexism and favoritism have resulted in “considerable suspicion, distrust, and loss of confidence in organizational processes, and leaders,” according to a 2020 report.
“Perceptions of racism, sexism, and favoritism undercut trust in department processes including assignment, resource distribution, discipline, and promotion,” notes the 2020 Organizational Assessment Report for the Alexandria Fire Department. “Women fight a conservative mindset that has not yet disappeared. Conflict and related conditions fester until they become serious.”
Fire Chief Corey Smedley says his staff are exhausted by COVID-19, and that he is working on addressing multiple issues. He said that race relations within the department remain a work in progress, and that he continually hears negative comments against AFD academy classes that are filled with women and minorities.
“I can tell you, based on my experience, I get sometimes a few people that treat me in a certain way that isn’t what I’ve seen my caucasian counterparts be treated,” Smedley told ALXnow. “Specifically my predecessor… When there are more women and minorities in the recruitment class, I get comments about how everybody isn’t cut out for this job… We need to improve our training practices and the philosophy of training.”
Last summer, results from the annual citywide employee engagement survey were mixed, with only about 25 percent of respondents (147 AFD employees) seeing the department as a great place to work and seeing career opportunities for advancement.
According to the report, “A few participants suggested race may have been a factor in promotions of some members, some perceive that there are members who believe that personnel trained by a minority instructor may not be as capable as those taught by white training.”
All of this comes while the department undergoes a reorganization. Just days after the city made a deal on collective bargaining, AFD announced that roughly two-thirds of AFD staff are being relocated around the city.
“The department has met a new low in moral and low level of trust in senior staff,” one AFD staffer wrote. “If senior staff does not engage its employees, seek input (and listen) from people who actually do the work, and so on, we will continue to plunge further into the lowest we have ever been. There are many talented people who work here and who care; that number is rapidly shrinking by the day.”
AFD staff said that a number of issues, including racism, sexism and pay plague the department.
“Blatant racism and sexism,” an AFD employee wrote. “Pay freeze, fools in charge. How dare you hide behind covid and the bodies of dead Americans as an excuse to not provide me with a raise. The rate of inflation is roughly 2 percent a year. So in reality I’m receiving less money because my purchasing power decreases. Data is a joke.”
The reorganization, among other things, calls for shifting more than a dozen members of the technical rescue team and its resources (including the HAZMAT team and Foam Unit for flammable liquid spills and fires) to the station at Potomac Yard from Fire Station 206 at 4609 Seminary Road in the West End.
Morale has never been lower, Josh Turner, president of the Alexandria Fire Fighters Inc. and International Association of Firefighters Local 2141, told ALXnow.
“I’ve never seen morale this low in the fire department in my 11 years here,” Turner said. “People are tired. I’ve got members that are overworked. Between COVID vaccination sites and just running the normal emergencies that we run, people are tired, and they feel like their leadership isn’t looking out for them.”
AFD Chief of Staff Chris Thompson was hired in February 2020. Thompson was a recruiter for AFD for six years before his promotion, and says that he has fought against an exclusive culture where women and minorities were held back from promotion. He said that he has recruited roughly half of the department, and has gotten a lot of feedback about recruiting “the wrong people.”
“I believe that with any change there is stress,” Thompson said. “The changes that we’re making are basically a reorganization. And that’s basically moving apparatus, changing where people might have to work, changes some of the responsibilities.”
Smedley said that staff are working on 14 initiatives outlined in the report, including developing an advisory committee with employees from various divisions; developing an administrative team; creating an EMS blueprint for promotion to higher ranks; revamping communications within the department and working with the City’s race and social equity officer to develop a Departmental Equity Core Team to train staff on race and equity issues.
“I embrace diverse thoughts and opinions,” Smedley said. “I encourage people to be courageous about their convictions and about their opinion and passion. But they have to be aligned with our values.”
Sheriff Makes Statement on Death of George Floyd — “This event is a tragic reminder that we, as a law enforcement officers, must do more to hold each other to the high standard of conduct that is expected and demanded by those we serve. We cannot stand by and remain silent when unacceptable conduct by our peers occurs, no matter how minor or major it is. We must be better for ourselves and our community as lives depend on it.” [City of Alexandria]
Beyer Says Trump Unfit for Office — “The President is inciting violence against the journalists who are showing everyone what is happening at significant personal risk, and against Americans broadly. Trump is unfit for office, and his divisive words make this situation more dangerous.” [Twitter]
ALIVE! Provides Food for 1,060 Families — “We sent 1060 families home with produce eggs and shelf stable groceries today because of your support!” [Facebook]
ACPS Hires Three Principals — “Today Alexandria City Public Schools announced the hiring of three new principals for the 2020-2021 school year. Dr. John McCain will be the new Head of School at Jefferson-Houston, Mr. Loren Brody will be the new principal at Charles Barrett, and Ms. Penny Hairston will be the new principal at Douglas MacArthur. Learn more about them by clicking the links in the comments below.” [Facebook]
DASH Distances from Wraps2Go After Owner Makes Racist Tweet — “We do not support any ideals that promote division, discrimination or racism. We can confirm that we have no ongoing projects with Wraps2Go and will not be doing business with them in the future.” [Facebook]
Fire Chief Congratulates New Firefighters — “Recruit School 50 officially completed their initial training and will begin reporting to their assigned stations tomorrow. Because their graduation ceremony has been postponed, Fire Chief Corey Smedley visited to take questions and give them words of encouragement.” [Facebook]
Tenants and Workers United Advises Arlandria Residents on Rent — “Today we were meeting carefully with more than 100 members of Presidential Greens and New Brookside to follow the next steps to get justice in their homes in their apartment complex in these times of crisis we are in.” [Facebook]
New Job: Part Time Concierge — ” The Concierge will be greeting potential residents, families, visitors, managing both external and internal calls, taking and communicating messages. The Concierge provides an overview of community information to those inquiries in support of the marketing and sales efforts.” [Indeed]
The following Letter to the Editor was written by Alexandria Fire Chief Corey Smedley.
Like every emergency, the Alexandria Fire Department approached this pandemic with the mindset that we will win the fight, no matter the circumstances – and that is NON-NEGOTIABLE. We have found the courage to redefine ourselves and think outside of the box to try new things in response to something we have never faced before.
I believe that together we can all find that courage as we continue to adjust and hold on to some form of normalcy in this current situation.
When I was officially named the Fire Chief for the Alexandria Fire Department in December 2019, I would have never thought our city would be facing an ongoing, global public health crisis within a few short months.
As a new chief, this can seem overwhelming, and make no mistake about it, COVID-19 is one of the greatest nemeses I have ever encountered to-date.
However, I knew what I was signing up for and I want to be battle-tested for future challenges. But I am not facing this alone. Your Fire Department is a team of talented, skilled and prepared individuals who are risking their own safety to respond to every single emergency call we receive.
The inherent qualities of the fire service profession are compassion, care, preparation, adaptability and teamwork, and we get to demonstrate those qualities even more during this unprecedented global pandemic.
I have seen many AFD leaders emerge during the COVID-19 response, and that increases my passion for fire service and for helping the community. And that is the behavior and character I want to see spread throughout our department – especially in times of crisis. I am honored to be a part of the AFD team, and I could not be prouder of the work our members are doing during this emergency.
I want to reiterate that it is important that everyone does their part in slowing the spread of COVID-19 and keeping your families and our community safe. We’re all in this together.
Over the past couple of months, we have developed new procedures for emergency calls to keep everyone safe as we continue to carry out our mission.
As you continue to do your part by staying home, maintaining physical distancing and donning face masks when in public spaces, your Fire Department is taking every necessary step to keep our members safe and healthy so we can continue to respond to emergencies.
I have served the public in various ways my entire adult life, including eight years in the U.S. Army Reserve, six years in the Alexandria Fire Department, and nearly 30 years in the National Capital Region. Like many of the members of AFD and our regional public safety partners, I have served my community through various local and national emergencies including major fire incidents, mass shootings, significant weather events, mass gatherings, 9/11, H1N1, and now the coronavirus.
Over the years and through all those incidents, I have learned that our response is only as good as our partnerships with the community and other stakeholders. As the city’s former emergency manager, I recognize that the very first responders are members of the community.
The Alexandria community has not disappointed. You have offered your assistance in helping to feed our firefighters and paramedics; identified gaps and developed ways to meet those needs; and created ways to obtain and/or clean our personal protective equipment (PPE).
Now, I acknowledge that after months at home you may be feeling stressed, anxious and even afraid. We understand, because during these unusual times we are experiencing those feelings as well. Through it all, AFD remains ready to assist the community. Because, like the rest of the Alexandria community, we are strong, courageous and resilient.
Stay encouraged. Stay informed. Stay safe and healthy and we will get through this together.
ALXnow.com occasionally publishes thoughtful letters to the editor about issues of local interest. To submit a letter to the editor for consideration, please email it to [email protected] Letters may be edited for content and brevity, at our discretion.
Staff photo by James Cullum
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way that the Alexandria Fire Department does business.
While there are currently no AFD personnel who have exhibited symptoms, the department is responding to an uptick in COVID-19-related emergency calls.
“We’re definitely seeing more calls for fever and body aches, but it hasn’t been an exponential increase,” Deputy Fire Chief Brian Hricik told ALXnow. “It’s been four or five, maybe even six calls a day where it’s flu like symptoms is what we’re looking for — the cough, body aches, fevers, those types of things. We might go to a residence for somebody that’s having a heart attack, and if the family member that’s sitting right next to them is coughing and sneezing, and within six feet of us, then we need to be prepared to protect ourselves.”
Hricik is the deputy planning section chief for the city’s Emergency Operations Center, and coordinates response efforts for the fire department, the Alexandria Police Department and the Sheriff’s Office.
Fire Chief Corey Smedley says Hricik is the man for the job.
“One of my first decisions as Fire Chief was to promote Deputy Chief Hricik,” Smedley told ALXnow. “He has been with the department for 23 years and continues to show great leadership and knowledge. He has been leading our efforts to ensure the safety of our members and our community throughout this pandemic. Hricik cares about AFD and the Alexandria community, so he’s the right person for the job especially during these uncertain times.”
There are currently 36 cases of COVID-19 in Alexandria.
Hricik said that first responders are wearing personal protective equipment, distancing themselves from patients and taking minimal equipment into buildings. He also said that 911 operators are screening callers to determine if they are symptomatic, and AFD staff are routinely taking their temperatures and changing clothes.
“EMS is not generally great with responding to flu-like emergencies and protecting ourselves. We’ll often run catch coughs, sneezes, sniffles on a routine basis, especially when flu season starts,” he said. “Now we’re much more purposely moving forward in a slower pace to say, okay, we’re going to send one person in and start asking questions probably at that 10-to-six-foot mark away from the patient or for family members and start asking questions about what’s happening, how we can help, what are the symptoms that they’re having and those types of things. If they have a cough or if they’ve had a fever, we’re handing them a surgical mask to put on themselves first, and then we also have on all of our gowns, gloves, goggles and masks.”
Hricik said the city’s first responders and law enforcement are now rationing personal protective equipment.
“I think right now we have a handle on what we have in stock. We’ve put some measures in place so that we’re not wasteful with it,” he said. “If we end up getting a New York-style expansion, then there’s no way we’re going to survive on what we have.”
Hricik said that the biggest challenge for the department is the uncertainty of the pandemic.
“We’re trying to plan. If we have one patient, our response looks like this, if we have 10 patients, then our response looks different,” he said. “There’s 140,000 to 150,000 people in the city of Alexandria, and if everybody ended up getting it, how do we deal with that? How do we prepare for that? If we have 40 [infected] people in the city and that’s our top number, then I’m confident we’ve got it under control. If we end up having 40,000 people in the city, and that’s our top number, that’s a completely different ballgame.”
Photo via Alexandria Fire Department/Facebook
Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne says that the city has a problem compensating its employees, and at Monday’s budget public hearing told city council that raising taxes is not the answer.
“The proposed budget does not close the gap with our competitors in the region,” Lawhorne said. “Taxes go up, people leave town. We need to change things.”
Lawhorne’s comments were notable, since his department is proposed to receive $135,000 for office staff, in addition to a 1.5% pay increase for all city employees, which City Manager Mark Jinks has proposed in his $799.9 million fiscal year 2021 budget.
The budget proposal would also see a real estate tax increase of 2 cents, which would fully fund the city’s public school system request. Jinks wants to raise taxes every other year over the course of six years in order to pay for construction of two new elementary schools.
Lawhorne said the methodology behind the tax increase is the problem.
“Make no mistake about it, I support tax increases to fully fund our schools and public safety,” he said. “It’s how we get to this point that concerns me. Kicking the can down the road over the years will eventually catch up to you. Then it creates a significant tax demand and it hits our seniors hard. My ask tonight was for city council to think about it.”
Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson said that employee compensation is the dominant conversation in every city budget.
“You will go to any local government in this region and you will see these exact same conversations occurring at their budget public hearings,” Wilson said. “Everyone is dealing with the same challenges. We’ll talk again about about what the best ways that we can make sure that we have competitive pay and fair and equitable pay for all our employees, and that’s my commitment.”
A number of representatives from various city departments attended and spoke at the meeting, including the Alexandria Fire Department and the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services.
Mike Chandler has been an Alexandria firefighter for 31 years, and said that staffing shortages and working overtime have become the norm at the department, which is among the lowest paid in the region.
“It’s very hard to keep folks motivated. In some cases it’s almost impossible, because it’s very hard to argue with the increased compensation they can go get right next door in some of the neighboring jurisdictions,” Chandler told ALXnow. “We’ve had difficulty retaining quality employees because of mainly pay issues. We’ve become a training ground for our region. Recruits come here, they get trained, they get a little bit of experience and they move to some of the neighboring jurisdictions because then they can make so much more money.”
The budget proposes transitioning a part-time nurse practitioner to full-time nurse to provide health support for the city’s firefighters and medics, and $360,000 for six reserve firefighters.
AFD Captain Josh Turner, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2141, says that three firefighters have moved to neighboring jurisdictions in the last two weeks. He estimates that it will cost upward of $2 million for city firefighters to be 100% staffed at the midpoint in the region.
“A 1.5% raise is great. I’m really excited for 1.5% for my members, but it’s not enough,” Turner said.
City council will discuss employee compensation at its next budget work session on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at City Hall.
After more than 50 years since he joined the Alexandria Fire Department, Gerald Wanzer finally made lieutenant.
The 75-year-old native Alexandrian was the second African American to join the department, and on Thursday he was presented with an honorary lieutenant helmet and badge by Fire Chief Corey Smedley.
Smedley said Wanzer helped pave the way for African Americans in the city.
“Mr. Wanzer, there would be no Corey Smedley without you. So, thank you,” Smedley said. “I want people to know that in the department, as long as I’m here, we will practice and execute diversity and inclusion in every way imaginable… And this is a small demonstration of what he should have received years ago.”
Wanzer said that he has been trying to make lieutenant for decades.
“It means so very much to me,” Wanzer told ALXnow. “I’ve been trying to get this position for years because I felt like I was cheated out something that I very much deserved.”
Wanzer was born and raised in Alexandria, and joined the U.S. Air Force after graduating from Parker Gray High School in 1963. After being discharged in 1967, he spent two years as the first African American installer for the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company. It was after he ran into an old high school friend of his, John Davis — the first African American with the department — that he decided to take the AFD admission test.
“It was a childhood dream to become a firefighter, and even in the military I was one of a very few blacks in my outfit, so I had no problem working with anyone — although they might have had a problem working with me,” Wanzer said. “I later took the test for lieutenant and I came out number 5, but with some finagling wound up number 10 and I never did get promoted. The guy who was number 15 moved down to number 5, so I got pencil-whipped.”
Wanzer retired from the department in 1981 on disability after a ladder fell on him during a fire call on the West End. He had four surgeries for a ruptured disk in his back, but remains in near-constant pain. He became the first president of the Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax chapter of the Black Firefighters International Association, which is now known as the Black Fire Service Professionals of Alexandria.
Jessica Wanzer attended the ceremony with her brothers, Craig and Edward, and said that she was proud to see her father receive the recognition he deserves.
“He loves supporting all of the current firefighters. He comes and checks in on them all the time and gives them advice,” she said. “I’m just so proud of him, because he paved the way for a lot of other African American firefighters.”
Corey Smedley was sworn in as the 30th Alexandria Fire Chief at City Hall last night.
The 48-year-old Smedley, who is the city’s first permanent African American Fire Chief, took the oath of office Tuesday night in a packed house with his family, members of the Alexandria Fire Department and city leaders in attendance.
“There should be no ambiguity as the leader of the organization,” Smedley said. “I will help you succeed, I will help you lead or I will help you find the door.”
Mayor Justin Wilson said that Alexandria is a difficult community to serve.
“We expect a lot out of leaders in this community. We send them through the paces, we ask them as many questions as possible when we demand absolute excellence and they should expect nothing less than excellence,” Wilson said. “We are looking forward to great things. This is an exciting time for our fire department.”
Smedley was born in Washington D.C., raised in Maryland and lives in Chesapeake Beach, Md. He joined the department in 2015 as the deputy fire chief of emergency management and homeland security, after 20 years with the Prince George’s County Fire Department.
Smedley was named to Assistant Fire Chief of Administration last January, and was named the acting fire chief last summer after former Chief Robert Dubé unexpectedly announced his retirement.
APD Investigates Friday Night Robbery — “The Alexandria Police Department is investigating a commercial robbery in the 3100 block of Duke Street. Merchandise was taken and one minor Injury. Expect police activity in the area.” [Twitter]
Appointment for Former Fire Chief — “Former Alexandria, Va Fire Chief Robert Dubé has been appointed Deputy Director of the Virginia Department of Fire Programs, according to a press release issued Friday, January 10, 2020 from Governor Ralph Northam’s office.” [Zebra]
New Sephora Store Close to Opening — “Wood floors, lots of mirrors, and colorful walls are in place at the new Sephora makeup store in Old Town Alexandria. Sephora’s Alexandria store, at 810 King St., will open Jan. 24, according to the company.” [Alexandria Living]
Alexandria Holds Housing Summit — “Hundreds of residents and local leaders gathered in Alexandria, Virginia, for the city’s 2020 Housing Summit as local officials worked to take on the challenge of affordable housing. The full day event offered discussion on everything from housing for seniors and the 2013 Housing Master Plan to the development and preservation of affordable living.” [WTOP]
Federal Case Details Local Swatting Incidents — “Another false threat was called in to the Alexandria police last January; the caller claimed to have killed his girlfriend and taken her two children hostage. The address he gave was of a person protected by the U.S. Secret Service. A person familiar with the incident said it was resolved without fanfare after a call to the Secret Service” [Washington Post]
More on Alexandria’s New Fire Chief — Newly-appointed Alexandria Fire Chief Corey Smedley “is now working with the city manager’s office on a number of budget issues. He recently submitted a budget proposal to the city manager, and said that he is working to improve the pay for Alexandria’s first responders, which is among the lowest in the region.” [Zebra]
City Ready for Winter Weather — “Responding to winter weather events is a top priority for the City of Alexandria. City crews clear snow from more than 560 lane miles of roadway, 20 miles of City-owned walkways and trails, and 44 acres of municipal parking lots or City-owned squares.” [City of Alexandria]
Northam Proposes Nixing Vehicle Inspections — “Gov. Ralph Northam wants to end state-mandated vehicle safety inspections and cut vehicle registration fees in half, proposals his administration says would eventually save Virginians more than $280 million per year. But motorists would have to pay a few dollars more each time they fill up on gas under a proposal to increase the state’s motor vehicle fuels tax from about 22 cents per gallon to 34 cents per gallon over three years.” [Virginia Mercury]
Beyer Pushing for Quieter Airplanes — Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who has long advocated against excessive noise from aircraft landing at and taking off from Reagan National Airport, is calling on NASA to study ways to make commercial jetliners quieter and cleaner in a new bill. [Press Release]
Alexandria Has a New Fire Chief — “After a nationally competitive recruitment effort, City Manager Mark B. Jinks has appointed Corey A. Smedley as fire chief for the City of Alexandria, effective immediately. Chief Smedley, who has served as acting fire chief since the retirement of Robert C. Dubé in June, will be the first African American to serve as permanent fire chief in Alexandria’s history.” [City of Alexandria]
Dog’s Artwork Sells at Auction — “A new artist has captured the attention of local art lovers selling 20 pieces of art in less than an hour at an auction. All it took has a little tail wagging, and the dog nicknamed Ricasso had a collection of masterpieces. Rico, a dog staying at the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria for 15 months, raised more than $4,000 to help shelter pets like him at the sold-out Dec. 6 event.” [Patch]
ACPS Year in Review — Alexandria City Public Schools has released a video recounting some of the top local school-related headlines of 2019. [ACPS]