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After concern that his officers were working too much overtime, Alexandria Fire Chief Corey Smedley temporarily put an engine out of service on Sunday night (Dec. 19).

The move was enough to prompt the International Association of Firefighters’ Local 2141 to put out a public safety alert on social media.

Smedley said that fire apparatus go out of service all the time for a number of issues, including training, maintenance, and community outreach events. Still, he said, staff have continued to express concern over working mandatory overtime, and says it is impacting their lives, from “child care issues to mental exhaustion.”

“I was also concerned about some who were on shift and approaching maximum consecutive work hours,” Smedley told ALXnow. “Considering all of these factors and the high rate of those working mandatory overtime, the Fire Department initiated a portion of its continuity of operations plan by placing Engine 205 out of service at 7 p.m. on December 19 to relieve some of the pressure on our workforce.”

The unions tweeted that such reductions are now common occurrences, and that other closures have been made in recent months.

AFD is currently understaffed by 23%, with 281 first responders working in a department that needs 347 to be fully staffed. Just last week, the union stated that AFD’s staffing issues put lives and property at risk in a Dec. 4 fire in Crystal City.

The engine returned to service the following day.

“Based on our data, this was the least impactful timeframe of the day for call volume,” Smedley said. “We ensured advanced medical service was covered across the city by moving the engine’s paramedic to Truck 205 and informing our mutual aid partners of the temporary change in operations.”

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Understaffing within the Alexandria Fire Department put people and buildings at risk during a fire at Crystal City’s restaurant row on 23rd Street earlier this month, according to two unions representing more than 500 Alexandria and Arlington firefighters, medics and fire marshals.

In a sharply worded press release on Friday, Dec. 10, officials from the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2141 and IAFF Local 2800 wrote that AFD’s inability to fully staff their department led to “multiple close calls” at a fire on Saturday, Dec. 4, in the 500 block of 23rd Street. No one was injured in the blaze, which caused $1.8 million in damages.

“The City’s been playing with fire for awhile now” said Josh Turner, President of Local 2141. “It’s an unnecessary game of Russian roulette putting lives at risk, solely due to the City’s inability to recruit and retain employees for our department.”

What resulted, the unions said, was a call for service where firefighters were short staffed, and Alexandria did not send both and Engine Company (which extinguishes fires) and Rescue Company (removes obstructions and rescues victims) to the scene — only a Rescue Company. The unions reported that when a Rescue Company in South Arlington was responding to another call, Arlington and Alexandria had to follow a “short staffing” procedure that brought only a single AFD engine to the fire.

A Rescue Company from Fairfax County instead had to to report to the scene.

“The initial call should have had a minimum 12 firefighters dispatched for tasks like putting up ladders, forcible entry and search and rescue. Instead there were only 8 dispatched,” said Brian Lynch, President of IAFF Local 2800, representing uniformed members of the Arlington County Fire Department. “That is the equivalent of fielding a football team with only a portion of your offensive line. The job got done this time, but we cannot be putting families, businesses and firefighters at this kind of risk.”

Lynch continued, “Firefighters conducting fire attack and searching the second floor for victims encountered extreme and nearly deadly fire behavior, which forced them to rapidly evacuate. Eventually the second floor collapsed. Luckily, firefighters on the scene from other functions like EMS or standing by to rescue trapped firefighters were able to help with some fire operations. But we should not be relying on that, especially for a call like this – both businesses were occupied at the start of the fire, thankfully there were not multiple patients, or firefighters that could not rescue themselves. This could have ended very badly.”

Alexandria’s Rescue Company has been reportedly been understaffed since August 12.

Alexandria Fire Chief Corey Smedley says he’s having constant conversations with local union groups, and says he has spoken with the incoming City Manager Jim Parajon about hiring additional staff and employee compensation.

“We’re in a challenging space right now.,” Smedley said. “We need more resources, and we’re working toward that. But the community will get responded to and they will have the appropriate people there to mitigate their emergency. At the same time, I need to make sure we have the appropriate staffing for first responders so that they can also have the confidence that they’re going to be taken care of in those very risky situations.”

Smedley also said he’s been concerned with the number of hours his people are working, and recently reduced the maximum number of consecutive hours they are allowed to work.

“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.”

There are now 281 first responders within AFD, Smedley said, and the the department needs 347 to be fully staffed. As it stands, there are 27 recruits in the Fire Academy, and they are scheduled to graduate in the first quarter of next year. Smedley said he hoped to hire 30 more recruits to get additional relief.

Smedley will soon travel to Arlington, Texas, where Parajon is the outgoing assistant city manager. There, he says, he will talk to the fire chief about lessons learned and best practices to get things moving forward in Alexandria.

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An overloaded electrical outlet is likely the cause behind last month’s three-alarm fire in a Del Ray duplex, the Alexandria Fire Department announced Wednesday.

Two adults and a child were displaced by the blaze, which occurred at around 6 p.m. on Friday, November 19. A cat is still missing, according to APD.

“AFD’s Fire Marshal’s Office conducted an origin and cause investigation and determined that the fire was accidental and originated on the first floor of one of the two units in the residential structure,” AFD said in a release. “Due to extensive fire damage, an exact source of ignition was difficult to determine; however, the probable cause of the fire is attributed to an overloaded electrical outlet where several appliances were connected.”

The duplex has been condemned, and damages are estimated at $1.4 million.

The Del Ray Citizens Association launched a GoFundMe for the residents and raised nearly $40,000.

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(Updated at 11:55 a.m.) A two-vehicle crash Wednesday afternoon (Nov. 24) shut down traffic on N. Van Dorn Street from Taney Avenue to Holmes Run Parkway earlier today.

The incident was reported to the public via Twitter at 10:55 a.m., the Alexandria Fire Department and police are at the scene. Police and medics were dispatched to the scene, according to scanner traffic.

Both drivers suffered injuries, and one of them is in critical condition, according to AFD. Both drivers have been transferred to Inova Alexandria Hospital.

The Police Department’s crash reconstruction unit was at the scene, but Van Dorn Street reopened around noon.

Via Twitter

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In the last few months, a head-long battle between Alexandria’s police and firefighters against city leadership has come to a head as first responders unions say underpayment has left staffing at critical levels.

City staff recently laid out the potential costs to implement a pay raise for first responders, but unions representing those first responders say that sticker shock is less intense in the broader context of the budget.

“The question we should be asking is, ‘Is ensuring high-quality first responder services a priority for this community?'” said Captain Josh Turner, President of the firefighter union IAFF Local 2141. “For a 10% pay increase for our entire fire department, it would only take an additional $3.4 million in the proposed upcoming $780 million budget. That’s less than 0.5% of the upcoming budget. So if this is an actual priority for Council, finding $3.4 million in the existing budget shouldn’t be difficult.”

A 1% pay increase would cost around $3 million and the city would need to increase the tax rate by 0.7 of a cent if it wanted to pay for the increase from tax revenue, acting Human Resources Director Jen Jenkins said at a City Council retreat.

A breakdown of the 1% pay scale increase costs indicated that general city staff comprised $2 million of the $3 million total. At the retreat, City Manager Mark Jinks noted that city employees aren’t unionized like police or firefighters are, but shouldn’t be left out of the pay raise discussion.

For the first responders, the breakdown was:

  • Police Department: around $400,000
  • Fire Department: around $340,000
  • Sheriff’s Office: around $200,000

Not only have first responders said a 1% increase would be “insulting”, Turner said there are alternative sources to pay for the increase.

Turner noted that the Annual Comprehensive Financial Report given to the City Council last night (Tuesday) indicated that there was around $1.9 million left over from the past fiscal year. The chart shows $2.9 left over in the police budget.

“That’s half the money we would need for a 10% increase right there in the leftovers from last year,” Turner said. “We’re not asking the City to go bankrupt, or to deplete the rainy day fund, or for the City to ruin their bond rating. We’re just saying that, if it’s a priority, the City has the money to pay their first responders fairly.”

Marcus Downey, vice president of the police union IUPA Local 5, also objected to the characterization of a tax increase being the only option for funding the pay raise.

“The archaic excuse of requiring a substantial tax increase and placing the burden on City residents is straight out of Alexandria City Hall’s playbook,” Downey said. “Pre-election, we were told employee compensation would be a priority. There were literally zero comments about a need to increase taxes. Less than a week after the election, the conversation quickly shifted to ‘the residents will have to pay more in taxes.'”

Both police and firefighter unions have said low levels of staffing threaten the reliability of city services. Union representatives have previously claimed the low staffing could lead to the closure of a station, a claim Mayor Justin Wilson said was untrue.

“For us, at the end of the day, we’re talking about people,” said Turner. “We’re talking about a half percent for our first responders to get a fair shake — not for a park or for a building or for inanimate objects. We’re talking about people. People who came to work throughout the entire pandemic, running the risk of exposing themselves, and their families, to COVID, in order to serve the City.  People who in some cases have worked over 70 hours a week to provide life-saving services to the citizens of Alexandria.”

The FY 2023 budget discussion is currently in the early stages, with a proposed budget scheduled to be presented on Feb. 17, 2022.

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(Updated 4:45 p.m.) At the start of a City Council retreat this weekend, acting Human Resources Director Jen Jenkins laid out some numbers behind the ongoing discussion over a pay increase for city employees.

City employees — first responders in particular — have criticized city leadership’s handling of employee pay and lamented that the city is, in some respects, lowest in regional pay. The city has laid out plans for a 1.5% pay increase, which unions representing first responders called an insulting lowball.

Jenkins said a 1% pay scale increase would cost an estimated $3 million.

1% pay increase cost, via City of Alexandria

The current real estate tax rate is $1.11 per $100. Jenkins said if the city were to increase taxes to pay for the pay increase, that would come out to a 0.7 cent tax increase. That would go up to 2 cents for a 3% increase, 3.3 cents for a 5% increase, and 6.7 cents tax rate increase for a 10% raise, which is what first responder unions have called for.

Jenkins said city staff are in the process of comparing pay figures for Alexandria with other localities around the region.

During the retreat, City Manager Mark Jinks and Mayor Justin Wilson also outlined some upcoming challenges for pay raise discussions. For one thing, Jinks said that there are sections of city employees that are not unionized, and the city will have to consider their compensation as well beyond groups being advocated for by unions. Wilson also said a rift is forming in funding dedicated to the Sheriff’s Offices and to Police Departments.

“I think we have a specific issue on the public safety side that’s going to be challenging as well and I think the result of last Tuesday will make it even more complex,” Wilson said, “which is this divergence between what’s going on with the sheriff’s departments and what’s going on with policing. We dealt with that a little of this with the process this year because of the way the state dealt with the sheriff’s departments and didn’t do anything for local police. My guess is given the political realities, that will probably be more acute going forward, that you’re going to see considerable state investment in the sheriff’s departments but not the same local support for local police departments.”

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Morning Notes

Election day in Alexandria — “Alexandria voters will decide local races for Mayor, City Council, School Board and more.” [Patch]

Deployed Dad makes surprise visit to ACPS — “Lt. Col Warren makes a surprise visit. Join in for this special moment!” [ACPS]

First responders host annual coat drive for local kids — “First responders from throughout Northern Virginia came together Oct. 25 to help distribute more than 3,000 new coats destined for children in need as part of the Firefighters and Friends to the Rescue annual coat drive.” [Alexandria Gazette]

Alexandria Women’s Commission Partners With Vola Lawson Breast Cancer Fund — “The Commission for Women and other agencies underwrite mammograms for Alexandrians who are uninsured or whose insurance does not cover the screenings.” [Zebra]

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At an upcoming Alexandria City Council meeting on Tuesday (Oct. 26), City Manager Mark Jinks is scheduled to present a planned mid-year pay increase for city employees, though local unions that have been pushing for pay adjustment say it’s far from enough.

According to the docket, the proposal will be to restore a compensation initiative that had been eliminated last year because of COVID-19 revenue losses.

The report notes that the plan is to:

  • Implement the compensation initiatives eliminated in the FY 2021 budget
  • Provide a one-time $1,000 bonus for full-time employees and pro-rated for part-time employees
  • Provide funding for Deputy Sheriff positions one-time bonuses where state funding was not provided

The compensation initiative is a 1.5% rate boost to all city pay scales, with increases for various positions like captains and lieutenants in the Police Department and Sheriff’s Office, as well as for the deputy fire chiefs and chief deputy sheriffs.

The item also “indicates that compensation will be a priority for funding consideration as part of planning for the upcoming FY 2023 proposed City operating budget.”

Earlier this week, the Alexandria Committee of Police, IUPA Local 5, and Alexandria International Association of Firefighters Local 2141 attacked city leadership over employee pay and funding for programs within those departments. City officials answered that these concerns were being blown out of proportion as a collective bargaining technique.

“This suggestion is almost as insulting as the 1.5% pay increase that the City Manager has proposed to solve our understaffing problem,” the union said in another joint press release. “Our members have been underpaid for years, and the City’s own benchmarks show that they aren’t meeting the promise of paying at the midpoint of our regional comparators.”

The release pointed to Montgomery County’s $10 per hour premium pay for frontline workers as an example — though Montgomery County police have also expressed disgruntlement over pay issues. The unions also criticized Jinks for using a 2019 study indicating comparative pay between Alexandria and other jurisdictions rather than one from last year that showed that gap had further worsened.

The full text of the city’s mid-year pay increase is available online, as is the full text of the local union’s response.

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(Updated 3:40 p.m.) Organizations representing Alexandria police and firefighters are taking the city to task for what they say are chronic underpayment issues that put local residents at risk, but city officials say the push is a negotiation tactic in the ongoing collective bargaining discussions.

Local labor unions Alexandria Committee of Police, IUPA Local 5, and Alexandria International Association of Firefighters Local 2141 issued a joint press release decrying current pay conditions.

“Alexandria’s starting salary ranks 19th out of the 20 Northern Virginia jurisdictions, and we’re seeing how that impacts recruitment and retention.” said Marcus Downey, Vice President of the Alexandria Committee of Police, IUPA Local 5. “Through the first 9 months of the year, we have already lost 30 officers who have left for better-paying jobs, but we’ve only been able to hire 11 replacements. In a city where the crime rate has increased 15% since 2019, it is a safety risk for the community, and for our officers, when we can only replace 1 out of every 3 officers we lose.”

IAFF Local 2141 said in the press release that there are similar issues at the Alexandria Fire Department.

“Five years ago, before I joined the Alexandria Fire Department, I worked at the Wal-Mart warehouse” Said Matt DeBenedetto, an Alexandria firefighter. “I got paid more back then, working there than I do working for the Fire Department now. How can we recruit and retain people willing to run into burning buildings if safer, retail jobs pay significantly more?”

IAFF Local 2141 also warned that understaffing could lead to fire stations being closed, an allegation Mayor Justin Wilson previously denied.

Kelly Gilfillen, acting director of the Office of Communications and Public Information, said the advocacy push around police and firefighter pay is part of a collective bargaining strategy.

“As the City enters a new era of collective bargaining, it is understandable that the Police and Firefighters unions are initiating a public advocacy campaign to substantially increase their compensation,” said Gilfillen. “However, the Police and Fire Departments are well funded and the residents of Alexandria are safe.”

Gilfillen said the city periodically benchmarks its pay with that around the region and the City Manager makes pay recommendations based on the findings of that benchmarking.

“In the last seven years, the City Manager has made public safety pay increase recommendations six times,” Gilfillen said. “Any future pay recommendations made would need to be based upon regional benchmark findings and be equitable for all City employee groups.”

Despite this, Alexandria Police Officers have a lower starting salary than the city’s neighbors. In Alexandria, starting salary is $50,839, while that’s  $54,969 in Fairfax County and $56,035 in Arlington. Firefighters are also paid significantly less than neighbors around the region.

Gilfillen said City Manager Mark Jinks is planning to address this, at least in part, at next week’s City Council meeting.

“The City Manager plans on issuing an unprecedented mid-year pay proposal to City Council on Tuesday,” Gilfillen said. “He discussed it with the unions and other City employee groups last week. While the mid-year pay proposal is not a panacea, the City Manager has indicated, in recognition of the tight labor market, that he will be recommending to City Council this week that employee compensation is a priority consideration for planning next fiscal year’s budget.”

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Morning Notes

Mayoral candidates engage in public forum — “Alexandria’s mayoral candidates gathered in a virtual forum on Saturday, kicking into high gear to get their message out ahead of the Nov. 2 general election.” [Alexandria Times]

Amazon backs grant program to spur affordable development near D.C.-area transit — “Amazon will fund a new grant program to help local governments and nonprofit developers pursue affordable projects near transit stations, directing $500,000 of its recently announced $2 billion Housing Equity Fund to this effort.” [Washington Business Journal]

Local group plans Four Mile Run clean-up — “Join us Sat., Oct. 23 for cleanup at Four Mile Run Park from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. to celebrate the Clean Virginia Waterways and Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup.” [Twitter]

Alexandria kid goes viral for love of fire department — “Alotta yuck these days… Please enjoy the delight of my three year old spotting a fire truck. @AlexandriaVAFD, meet your biggest fan!” [Twitter]

D.C. didn’t ask Northam and Hogan to help crack down on ticket scofflaws, despite initial claims it did — “D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser never reached out to the governors of Virginia and Maryland to negotiate reciprocity for automated traffic camera tickets, despite a District government report — signed by the mayor and submitted to the D.C. Council last week — saying that said she did.” [DCist]

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