Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Budget Priority: Public Safety

Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Budget Priority: Public Safety

Our City Council is right now engaged in what I believe is their most challenging annual task, finalizing the city’s budget. Because budget dollars are a finite resource, they must prioritize between competing requirements that are all important, and are all valued by citizens.

That said, it is my opinion that public safety must always be the highest priority. Without it as a foundation for life in the city, all else that might be provided in any budget is rendered moot.

With that as perspective, I am writing to bring visibility to two critical public safety issues, both within the Alexandria Fire Department (AFD). They are compensation, and finally meeting the Federal standard of manning on all AFD Engines with four personnel rather than three. It would by no means “break the budget” to correct them both, and I believe strongly that we should.

To compare compensation, for the last three years the city has used the “NOVA Region,” which is comprised of the following localities: Fairfax, Arlington, Loudoun, and Prince William counties. Using “normalized” FY19 data (i.e., standardized to a 56-hour shift), the compensation of all classification titles (e.g., Medic I-IV, Fire Fighter I-IV, etc.) within AFD is behind all those in the NOVA Region.

Further, the critically important starting salary (which is crucial for recruitment) in AFD significantly lags the NOVA Region. AFD has the lowest starting salary of all five localities, the next lowest (Arlington) is more than $6,500 higher than Alexandria. When looking at the average starting salary across all the localities, Alexandria is more than 14 percent lower than that average.

AFD’s poor recruitment and retention reflect these realities. At the completion of recruit training, AFD loses a significant portion of its candidates in each class because they opt to hire on with other, better paying departments in either the NOVA Region or DC. In terms of retention of trained personnel, in the last three years, AFD has averaged 6.5 resignations per year by those who left AFD specifically to hire on in those other, better paying departments. A further reflection of the dire retention situation is that currently, more than half of AFD has less than 10 years of service/experience; one-third has less than five years.

It costs over $100,000 in training and individual equipment for one firefighter; over $8,000 for one paramedic certification. By lagging behind in both starting and career compensation in the AFD, the city is truly being “pennywise and pound foolish,” We simply cannot afford the loss of personnel and the investment we’ve made in their training. We must stem the bleeding in both recruitment and retention.

In doing so, and in recognition of so many competing needs within the budget, we do not need to make our AFD professionals the highest paid in the region. What is necessary, is to raise their compensation to at least provide "100 percent of the average" level in the region. I urge the City Council to do exactly that.

With respect to Engine manning, Federal research and field experiments established the 4-person Engine crew as the best staffing model (including one Advanced Life Support (ALS) provider on the Engine). In trials, all tasks were completed more efficiently; less time was spent on scene; and injury potential to FD personnel was reduced.

Specifically, as compared to 3-person crews, 4-person crews completed trauma tasks over two minutes faster; fire suppression tasks over five minutes faster (25 percent); and high-rise fire suppression tasks 12 minutes faster.

AFD does not currently have 4-person crew manning across all of its Engines. There is no excuse for Alexandria not meeting the Federal standard for optimum ALS and Fire Suppression staffing — it can be a matter of life and death.

We can achieve the 4-person standard across all AFD Engines with a combination of funding SAFER grants, and with overall department manning authorizations. Again, I urge the City Council to do exactly that.

If you agree that fixing these critical public safety issues in the budget is a priority, I urge you to please consider reaching out to all members of the council through “Call.Click.Connect” and request that they do so. Time is of the essence, lives are potentially at stake.

Dan Koslov