YORK COUNTY, Va. (WVEC) -- Understaffed and overworked.
Those are complaints from firefighters in York County.
The problems started more than a decade ago and are just getting worse, and union leaders say it's creating a safety issue.
Donald Dinse is a retired firefighter and now the president of the IAFF Local 2498, the union representing professional firefighters, paramedics and dispatchers in York County, Williamsburg, Poquoson and James City County.
He says firefighters are overworked.
He says there is a staffing shortage and mandatory overtime is a growing concern.
“It's about putting people who are well-rested on the job who are coming to your house for the chest pains,” Dinse says.
Dinse says the problem began about 15 years ago when the county was short 62 firefighters.
The board of supervisors aggressively addressed the issue, but the recession hit, and everything was put on hold.
The county came out of the recession still short about 45 firefighters.
Dinse says now the county is short around 40 firefighters.
“We haven't heard any long-term planning,” Dinse says. “It's just this year, budget year, hire about eight firefighters, 3% pay raise and hopefully they come up with a plan to keep people here.”
Amber Fox's husband is a York County firefighter.
She can see how the long hours are affecting her husband.
“He's been sick because he's been working so much,” Fox says. “They're all running into exhaustion.”
A majority of the firefighters wanted to bring this growing issue to the public's attention.
Dinse started getting several letters from first responders. He forwarded some of them to the county administrator.
But the firefighters said that wasn't enough, and that they were searching for public support.
Dinse used Facebook to get the letters to the public.
“Just 20 minutes ago a firefighter called me crying about leaving her kid behind,” Dinse says. “They're scared about intimidation, are they going to be written up for writing a letter.”
Dinse recently met with four out of five board of supervisors to try and figure out a way to address the issue.
Vice chairman Jeffrey Wassmer told 13News Now over the phone that this is now a priority of his as they work on their budget.
Fire Chief Stephen Kopczynski released a statement below saying:
We are aware of the comments about staffing and overtime concerns. We are working to ensure adequate staffing is maintained for daily operations and to improve the numbers of personnel who respond along with apparatus. Currently, the county is working on our Fiscal Year 2018 Operating Budget (July 1, 2017 through June 30, 2018) and the fire department staffing is included in budgetary discussions. In addition, York County has applied to FEMA for a grant called SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response), which would provide funding for six additional firefighters. Residents, businesses and visitors should not be concerned that response by York County in an emergency situation is being impacted. If an emergency call is made, our staff of highly trained, professional firefighters and emergency medical technicians will respond quickly and efficiently.
In the past, during years just prior to the great recession, staffing improvements had steadily occurred. It was only during the most recent lean times that the efforts had to be temporarily curtailed. As the county works to prepare a Fiscal year 2018 budget, a concerted effort is being undertaken to get needed staffing improvements back on track. In fact, through an opportunity at the Federal level, the Department of Fire and Life Safety has applied for a Federal grant to help infuse additional staffing. Additionally, further dialogue is occurring within our local government with recognition for the need for additional staffing. With regards to the media concerns about overtime requirements on existing personnel, as with any 24 hour a day operation that must maintain a minimum level of personnel, there will obviously be ebbs and flows. While the ideal circumstance would be to have an abundance of personnel so there would never be a need for overtime, sometimes this leads to inefficiencies. The county is always trying to balance the needs to ensure effective and efficient services in order to meet demands. Staffing challenges are frequently drive by vacancies, employee leave, absences due to the Federal Family Medical Leave Act, and unfortunately, the county cannot always predict absences. Further, while personnel are in training such as basic recruit training, they are unavailable for daily staffing needs. The use of overtime in fire departments to maintain staffing such as this is not an uncommon phenomenon, but one that occurs throughout Hampton Roads and across the country. Of course the county desires to minimize overtime use as much as possible and is constantly trying to develop ways achieve that and will continue to do so. Even though staffing challenges do exist, the county utilizes available resources to provide a very high level of quality fire and rescue services to our citizens, businesses, and visitors. And the men and women of York County Fire & Life Safety strive for excellence in all they do.
Fox is now one of many firefighters, first responders, and spouses speaking up, demanding change.
“We're getting to the point where the husbands have to bring their kids to work so we can work and make ends meet,” Fox says. “Hopefully the momentum gets going and we see some change.”
They plan on speaking at the Board of Supervisors March 7th meeting.
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