Fire Rescue System Looks for Funding to Fill Staffing Shortfall

Loudoun’s Fire and Rescue officials say they have a staffing problem: It’s costing a lot to keep enough people on the trucks, to the tune of $8.6 million last year in overtime pay.

The Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management, like many county government departments, has been scrambling for years to keep up with the county’s growth. Chief W. Keith Brower Jr. says that means the department must shift to a more sophisticated way to filling all the positions it needs.

The fire system must have a certain minimum number of people on each type of vehicle that responds to a call—per the regulations over the department, there simply is no option to send three people on a ladder truck instead of four. Up until 2011, Brower said, if the department had four positions to fill, it hired four people, and if someone was absent because of sick leave or vacation, an off-duty employee would be called in to work overtime.

Combined Fire-Rescue System Assistant Chief Matt Tobia and Chief W. Keith Brower Jr. (Renss Greene/Loudoun Now)
Combined Fire-Rescue System Assistant Chief Matt Tobia and Chief W. Keith Brower Jr. (Renss Greene/Loudoun Now)

But as the department has grown, it has become clear that this is an expensive way to do business. The department now estimates that it paid $13,592 in overtime pay per full-time equivalent position last year, and for every four full-time positions it has to fill, it needs to hire five people to allow for vacation time, sick leave, and other reasons an employee might take injury time or earned leave, and since 2011 has been trying to catch up.

Brower said it’s still 58 people behind.

That’s because in addition to tight budget years, the department has to contend with attrition, its own growth, helping fill gaps at the volunteer companies, and the time and cost of hiring new firefighters.

“If somebody leaves, we just can’t the next day bring somebody back in,” Brower told the county finance committee on Oct. 11. “They have to be recruited, go through the process of a written test, a physical evaluation, and then ultimately go onto a list, and it takes anywhere from 12 to 18 months,” Brower said.

From the time the department announces a firefighter vacancy until someone graduates from training, the department estimates it spends $50,000 to $60,000 filling that vacancy, to say nothing of the overtime it will pay out to cover that gap.

“Overtime’s not only a cost, it begins to get into a fatigue factor,” Brower said. “If you’re held over too many days, or if you’re having to work overtime on such a large basis, you’re not getting your effective breaks from work. We believe that that contributes to continuing use of sick leave, as well as it contributes to the fatigue, which can contribute to injuries.” Injuries mean more overtime and more overworked firefighters, and the problem perpetuates itself, Brower said.

For that reason, he said, hiring more people would actually save the county money, but even if the department had unlimited money it wouldn’t happen overnight.

“We couldn’t hire and process the number of folks in one year to satisfy this,” Brower told the finance committee. Instead, he said he expects the department will produce a five-year plan to catch up, and warned: “You’re not going to see any savings for 18 months.”

In the near term, the department will ask the county to increase its overtime funding in the next budget year. In fiscal year 2016, the county budgeted for $5.7 million in fire-rescue overtime, and ended up paying out $8.6 million. In the longer term, it will seek funding to hire and train more personnel.

Finance committee chairman Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) asked if Brower expected pushback, since cutting overtime would cut the income of some staff.

“Yes, you get pushback,” Brower said. “But it’s not just about the money. I go back to, it’s about our personnel and their safety. If you’re working them to death… that’s not good for their family, it’s not good for their physical health, and then next thing you know, they’re on the injury leave list for six months.”

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