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Fire Department Faces Staff Shortages

City competes with county for firefighters.

The City of Fairfax Fire and Rescue Department is learning to deal with the challenges thrown its way, such as staffing issues and the departure of life safety education officer Ed Clark.

The fire department staffs 58 uniformed officers, said Chief Tom Owens, but changes in national fire safety regulations pose challenges for smaller departments like the city's.

"What continues to occur is how much more complicated our firefighting operations have become over the years," said Owens. "A lot of that complication is because of increased regulations because of OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration]."

OSHA regulates safety standards for hazardous occupations such as firefighting. One of the most pertinent regulations for the city fire department, said Owens, is the "two in, two out" rule, in which for every two firefighters inside a situation classified as "immediate danger to life and health" (IDLH), two other firefighters must be equipped and ready on backup.

But the standard on which the city fire department has been operating for decades, said Owens, had three people on fire suppression, with two on paramedic ambulances, plus one duty battalion chief.

The OSHA standards would require four firefighters per call, rather than three.

"It’s the dominant issue related to staffing," said Owens. "It’s caused a lot of fire departments to examine their operations, since the three person minimum has been the staffing standard for many years. Where it leads us is to say, ‘We’ll mix and match our resources to try and comply.’"

FAIRFAX COUNTY Fire and Rescue has four people minimum on their engines, said Adrian Mundy, president of the City of Fairfax Professional Firefighters and Paramedics Association. "We get that on occasion if we have those opportunities."

At the July 26 City Council meeting, Owens asked the council for approval for the fire department to apply for the Staffing For Adequate Fire and Safety Response (SAFER) grant through the Department of Homeland Security that would allow state funding for nine new full-time professional firefighters.

The council approved the application, but some councilmembers worried that nine new positions would be too much to pay for once the grant funding ran out. Another consideration, according to Owens, is that 65 percent of the city's calls were in the county.

"Because we’re part of the larger system, are we taking a disproportionate hit to our budget?" asked Councilmember Scott Silverthorne at the meeting.

The city fire department is still waiting to hear whether it received the grant or not. Councilmember Gary Rasmussen suggested that the issue should be revisited in a council work session.

"Four-person staffing is an important issue, it’s something we have to address," said assistant fire chief Andrew Wilson. "We’re asking people to do a lot of things very quickly in an emergency situation. The SAFER Act grant does give us a significant amount of funding for those positions for the first five years."

THE CHALLENGE of four-person staffing becomes apparent when compared with the resources of Fairfax County. The county's fire department is far larger, with 36 firehouses and 1,200 people in the uniformed staff. The city and county operate by a mutual aid agreement, which says that whichever unit is closest to a call takes it, no matter whether the call comes from the city or the county, said Dan Schmidt, spokesperson for the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department.

"We run calls in Fairfax City, the city runs calls in Fairfax County," Schmidt said. "It’s a very robust and wonderful relationship we have with them."

"We’ve got very good benefits … we’re actually in very good shape," said Joel Kobersteen, communication director for Fairfax County Professional Firefighters and Paramedics.

Kobersteen named benefits such as state-of-the-art bunker gear, fire protection ensembles, and trucks and engines. The county also has an occupational health center, modeled after one in Phoenix, Ariz., where firefighters receive yearly physicals.

Many city firefighters, who have worked since the 1970s, are reaching retirement age, said Owens.

Other firefighters are attracted away from the city by better benefits and pay offered by larger departments such as Fairfax County.

"As soon as we hire people, more seem to leave," said Clark. "They’re leaving for different places for different reasons."

Clark himself is leaving his post as the city's life safety education officer to take a job as a financial analyst in Newark, N.J.

Higher salaries promised by the county fire department also attract firefighters away from the city, said Owens. According to Mundy, an entry-level city firefighter-paramedic makes $42,556 annually, whereas in the county, the same position earns $47,823.

"That’s just a $5,000 difference, but with other incentives the county receives, it makes almost a $10,000-plus difference in salary for an entry-level firefighter," said Mundy.

THE SALARY ISSUE is something the city firefighters’ union is looking at closely right now, said Mundy, and it has an effect on the city’s ability to keep and hire quality firefighters.

"Our neighbors are doing creative things to attract the best and the brightest for their departments," said Owens. "What you have is folks who may come to work in the city, and look around at what other employers are offering, and because they haven’t vested themselves yet, they’re in a position to seek better pay and benefits, and a better working environment."

"We used to have 20 to 30 people fighting for two or three jobs," he said. "Now, we’re lucky if we get two or three guys who can go through the process ... It all comes down to making sure we get good quality people to work and stay."

These concerns are typical of a smaller fire department. "This is not an issue unique to the city," said Owens. "As growth and development continues, the jurisdictions farther out are all seeing increases in hiring of firefighters and emergency medical services providers to cope with a demand for services."

Working for the city fire department has advantages, said Mundy, such as a strong sense of community, and the opportunity for paramedics to "do more advanced things they wouldn’t be able to do in other jurisdictions."

As for Clark, he is proud of what he has been able to accomplish in the Life Safety Education position, such as starting a juvenile firesetter intervention program, a smoke alarm campaign that restored the smoke detectors in 1,000 homes, and fire safety programs for elementary-school children. But it is unclear whether his position will be filled after he leaves on Aug. 15, he said.

"As much as I’ve enjoyed the circus, it’s time to leave," he said.