Is the Navy putting the safety of their civilian firefighters at risk?

Posted at 7:52 AM, Aug 06, 2015
and last updated 2015-08-07 06:14:49-04

Norfolk, Va. - A NewsChannel 3 investigation is looking into why some civilian firefighters who work on the Naval bases are upset with the military.

Naval firefighters were part of the response to the fire at M-Star Hotel Wednesday on Shore Drive in Norfolk.

It was an intense situation that requires fire crews to be on their game but Kevin Jurnigan, the local Vice President of the International Association of Firefighters Local F-25, District 2, at Norfolk Naval Shipyard said he and other civilian firefighters who work for the Navy are exhausted and being overworked.

Jurnigan was off on Wednesday and did not respond to the hotel fire but he said in general, "We are physically and mentally worn out."

He said civilian firefighters work on 11 military bases in Hampton Roads, respond to all kinds of calls and help out the cities when needed.

He said there is a major shortage of firefighters on those bases.

Jurnigan said two weeks ago he worked 120 hours straight-- five days in a row-- then had off for 24 hours, then back to work for another 72 hours.

Jurnigan said it`s dangerous for firefighters to respond to emergency calls without the proper amount of rest in between shifts.

But leaders with the Navy said it is extremely rare that a firefighter would be held for more than three shifts.   They said safety is their most important priority.

The Navy said the most a firefighter can be assigned is 72 hours, except for extreme situations.  They stated in an email that many firefighters volunteer for additional shifts and firefighters would never be held over on mandatory overtime for five days.  They said some volunteer to take other firefighters mandatory overtime.

"There may be times where you sleep all night but there may be times where you were up all night long," he said.

The union claims they are short 50 firefighters.

We reached out to the Navy and said there are currently 30 firefighter vacancies in Hampton Roads and claim that these numbers are not uncommon and have been consistent through the years.

Jurnigan said there is a backlog in the hiring process.

"Morale is as low as it's ever been.  Everyone is tired of being there. We've addressed it to our Chiefs, Assistant Chiefs, District Chiefs," he said.

NewsChannel 3 asked the Navy if they thought having people work several days in a row was dangerous and asked why there is a shortage, but they did not answer those questions.

"Personally speaking in my opinion it's not run the correct way.  If this was a business we would've been bankrupt a long time ago," Jurnigan said.

The union also wants a new schedule.  They want to work 48 hours on and 72 hours off, as opposed to the current schedule which is 24 hours on then 24 hours off with a 72 hour break after a six day shift.

They've created an online petition to make the change which currently has about 400 online signatures.

The Navy issued the following statement to NewsChannel 3:

"The current 24-on/24-off schedule is a part of, and subject to, the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the firefighters Union and Commander Navy Region Mid-Atlantic (CNRMA).

Any change to work schedules would be subject of the renegotiation of the CBA which is scheduled for later this year.

Of a total of 349 fire employees, there are currently 30 firefighter vacancies in Hampton Roads.

We continue to work diligently to recruit and hire qualified candidates to fill vacancies.

Navy Region Mid-Atlantic Fire and Emergency Services is one of the largest consolidated fire protection organizations in the Department of Defense (DoD).

In addition to the Hampton Roads area, the department provides fire protection/prevention services for nine fire districts encompassing 20 naval installations, support activities, and annexes in the 20-state Mid-Atlantic Region that ranges from Virginia to Maine and westward to Wisconsin.

The Department operates 31 engine companies, 10 aircraft firefighting rescue units, 6 ladder companies, and 23 ambulances and also participates in mutual response agreements with local communities surrounding our installations."

International Association of Firefighters leaders say more federal agencies are adopting either the 48/48 or 48/72 schedule change but say until the vacancies are filled they are still going to be stretched thin.

Jurnigan admits he`s made a lot of extra money, working all this overtime but said the strain he puts on his family is not worth it.

"I look forward to spending time with them when I'm off but I can never do that because I'm never off," said Jurnigan.

The Navy declined an on camera interview with us.