Union representing York Co. first responders says understaffing, overtime now a ‘public safety issue’

Posted at 1:59 PM, Feb 13, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-13 18:28:04-05

YORK CO., Va. - The union representing first responders is speaking out after getting several letters and e-mails about their concerns with staffing and overtime.

Donald Dinse, retired firefighter and president of IAFF 2498, the union that represents career professional Fire Fighters, EMS (EMT, Paramedics), and dispatchers in York County, Williamsburg, James City County, and Poquoson says the morale within the York County Fire and Life Safety is at an all-time low.

He says he has gotten between 25 and 30 e-mails and letters from firefighters and paramedics, and even more from their family members.

Dinse says 15 years ago, they were short 62 firefighters to meet National Fire Protection and Safety Standards. They hired more firefighters, but then the recession hit, and there was a pay and hiring freeze.

Now in 2017, Dinse says the department is short at least 30 firefighters and paramedics. He says firefighters can retire after 25 years of service, so those hired in 1991 will be able to retire this year, but the department has not done anything to offset those losses

Additionally, he says firefighters and paramedics are working anywhere from 70 to 90 hours in a five-day work week, when the minimum amount of hours they are supposed to work is 56.

He says some of the staff is working 36-hour shifts with only a 12 hour break.

"This is setting up to be a disaster, somebody is going to get killed, either a firefighter, a medic, or a citizen," says Dinse.

News 3 spoke to a firefighter with decades of experience with the department. He asked News 3 to protect his identity.

In addition to the concerns that Dinse raised, he says those concerns are also making it hard to keep any new firefighters or paramedics that join the department.

"We have to sometimes send exhausted firefighters back into the fire to put it out," he says. "We've just been lucky by the grace of God that we haven't had multiple incidents where we couldn't handle it and we haven't had loss of life."

Dinse decided he was going to anonymously post some of the letters that he was getting on Facebook to show the community what the firefighters and paramedics are dealing with. He posted this letter on a York County Facebook group:

I hope that the recent amount of letters and individuals voicing their concerns raises red flags in your mind. The members of YCFLS have been overworked and pushed to their physical and mental limits. Due to the lack of planning from administration, firefighters are now being asked to work an extensive amount of MANDATORY overtime when they should be resting, relaxing, and spending time with their families. As we kiss our wives and children goodbye in the morning, many of us are left to answer questions like, “Mommy/Daddy or Honey when will I get to see you again?” Unfortunately the answer is, “I don't know.” It is sad to know that because of poor planning, leadership, and lack of focus the firefighters are unable to plan family or household activities because we may never know when we are coming home. To require someone to essentially be “on call” for a day they are scheduled off places stress not only on family members but us as well. Spouses have become a single parent and left to run the household. Members are being forced to call in sick to second jobs which they need in order to live. Firefighting is understandably a high stress job and certainly takes a toll on our bodies. Then add family stress due to not seeing children or spouses and exhaustion of working such long hours each cycle on top of it and you have a recipe for disaster. This disaster often being divorce, depression and other mental health disorders, possible suicide, ugly custody battles, and a financial nightmare. What damage or death will it take for them to open their eyes?
When members walk into a fire station on overtime barely knowing what day it is because they are exhausted, should have people screaming about the quality of PUBLIC SAFETY they are receiving. Members are scheduled 24hrs on and then 24hrs off for a total of 9 days. Unfortunately many members are being forced to work at least 12 of these 24 hours off to backfill positions. Therefore members are working 36 hours straight, often multiple times of the week, with no relief in sight. Administration says they are hiring but the problem is that many people are either leaving to go to more competitive jurisdictions or members are retiring because they can no longer take it. When will staffing ever be sufficient enough to meet national standards and place the public and firefighters out of harm?
Unfortunately I can type all day long about problems within the county and Fire Department. Since we are being told to not speak out, I ask YOU to peel apart the layers and examine what is actually going on with staffing, overtime hours, unused and inadequately staffed specialty teams, and equipment.

Sincerely yours,
A VERY tired and dedicated firefighter

News 3 spoke with Vice Chairman, Jeffrey Wassmer, who says he will be making the firefighter and paramedic staffing a priority, in addition to salaries and ways they can adjust benefits.

"Do I think it's a public safety issue? I don't think so, but I'm not willing to wait until it is," he told News 3 in a phone conversation.

Chief Stephen Kopczynski also released a statement about the comments about staffing and overtime concerns:
"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."

Chief Kopczynski says fire department staffing is included in budgetary discussions for the Fiscal Year 2018 Operating Budget. In addition, they applied to FEMA for a grant called SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response), which would provide funding for six additional firefighters.