Slow burn: Decade of ‘lean’ staffing leads to overtime troubles in York County Fire & Life Safety

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York County firefighters battle a residential structure fire in the 200 block of Rainbrook Way on March 5. (Courtesy York County Department of Fire and Life Safety)
York County firefighters battle a residential structure fire in the 200 block of Rainbrook Way on March 5. (Courtesy York County Department of Fire & Life Safety)

He’s supposed to come home at 8 a.m.

The plan is this: Work a 24-hour shift, go home at 8 a.m., care for the baby while his wife is at work, rest up and return to work at 8 a.m. the following morning.

But sometimes he has to stay late – until 8 p.m. that night – responding to emergency calls, riding in the back of an ambulance or the cab of a fire truck. He works for 36 hours straight some shifts, coming home exhausted and run down, his wife says.

Amber Fox’s husband, James, has been working dozens of hours of mandatory overtime for several weeks as a firefighter with York County Fire & Life Safety, she said.

While some mandatory overtime is expected for York County firefighters, Fox said her husband has been on the clock more often than not since the beginning of February.

“We’re used to the 24-hour shifts of him being gone, but he’s been working almost every single day, usually for 36 hours at a time,” Fox said in mid-February. 

Amber Fox’s husband, James, has been working dozens of hours of mandatory overtime for several as a firefighter with York County Fire & Life Safety. (Courtesy Amber Fox)
Amber Fox’s husband, James, has been working dozens of hours of mandatory overtime for several weeks as a firefighter with York County Fire & Life Safety. (Courtesy Amber Fox)

Fox’s husband, a three-year firefighter with York County, is not alone in the hundreds of mandatory overtime hours he has worked, according to past and present firefighters, union representatives and fire department administration.

A WYDaily investigation found Fire & Life Safety staffing and overtime issues date back to before the 2008 recession, and revolve around county budget constraints, limited staffing numbers and Virginia’s status as a “Right to Work” state.

Although staffing and overtime challenges in York County have existed for over a decade, the issue of excessive mandatory overtime surfaced recently in a Feb. 11 Facebook post on a York County 411 group page.

The post, written by the International Association of Fire Fighters Union local chapter’s president, Donald Dinse, complained of low morale, multiple overtime shifts per firefighter and personnel fatigue.

“We are deeply concerned about the health and well-being of our members,” the post read, referencing members of the firefighters’ union. “Over the past few weeks our members have been working overtime 3 out of their 5 assigned shifts… We cannot continue to operate like this efficiently without serious injury or worse.”

In addition to Dinse’s post, which topped 136 comments by Monday afternoon, firefighters are also flocking to York County Board of Supervisors meetings to make their presence and needs known as budget season commences.

Many firefighters and their families plan to attend the March 7 Board of Supervisors meeting at York Hall Tuesday at 7 p.m., Fox said, to make another statement.

“I put my heart and soul into this department. I don’t like overtime more than anyone else,” York County Fire Chief Steve Kopczynski said. “I’m a pretty frugal person. If I could choose, I wouldn’t have anyone work overtime because of its cost and because employees shouldn’t have to work extra overtime.”

YEEHAWOn the shift

York County firefighters work unique schedules: They work a 24-hour shift, then have 24 hours off. After personnel work five shifts – over a total of nine days – they get a six-day break. After six days off, their work cycle starts over.

York County Fire & Life Safety operates in three different shifts with 32 personnel on each shift, scattered between six county fire stations. All personnel are cross-trained as both medics and firefighters, Kopczynski said, but are typically referred to as simply “firefighters.”

Two fire stations have eight firefighters on each shift, and four stations have four staff on each shift.

One major issue with sick days or leave is that it takes two firefighters working overtime to fill one firefighter’s absence on a 24-hour shift, Kopczynski said, because overtime is only assigned in 12-hour shifts. 

Typically, that overtime is either tacked on to the beginning or end of a firefighter’s 24-hour shift, Kopczynski said.

“We’re always looking at ways to minimize impact on our firefighters,” Kopczynski said. “Right now, I’ve got a bunch of people in training.”

“We have an obligation to the public. Some stations are busier than other stations, and we have not done anything like closing down a station or not staff the apparatus.”

Amber and James Fox's son Carter lays inside James' firefighter helmet. Fox’s husband, James, has been working dozens of hours of mandatory overtime for several as a firefighter with York County Fire & Life Safety. (Courtesy Amber Fox)
Amber and James Fox’s son, Carter, lays inside James’ firefighter helmet. (Courtesy Amber Fox)

Impact on firefighters

On one of his work cycles in mid-February, Fox’s husband, who works at fire station 6 in Seaford, was “hit” with mandatory overtime on four of his five work days, Fox said.

In 2015, Fox’s husband worked so much overtime – 367 hours – that the family was bumped into a higher tax bracket, and the family ended up owing money on that year’s tax return.

It’s fairly normal for Fox’s husband to expect overtime on at least one of his shifts during the nine-day work cycle, but late January and February have had unusual amounts of overtime.

Fox, who works at a local dental office, said childcare can be a last-minute arrangement if her husband must work mandatory overtime.

“Sometimes I get a call at 7:30 in the morning, just half an hour before he’s supposed to get off, and he says ‘I’m staying until 8 p.m. because I have to,” she said. “Then we have to scramble and find child care because we both have to work.”

Fox said working long hours in early February caused her husband to become “cranky” and overtired, and it took him weeks to shake a sickness he came down with in January.

One recent survey of 880 current and retired United States firefighters found more than half the participants suffered from insomnia. According the report, published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 52.7 of respondents had symptoms of insomnia, 39.6 percent showed signs of “clinically significant depression” and 19.2 percent suffered from nightmares. 

Former York County firefighter Joe Woolard, who retired in 2013, said working overtime often felt like “jet lag,” and could make patient care – including caring for critical patients and administering drug dosages – much more difficult.

Findings from the study demonstrated firefighters are at an “elevated” risk for sleep problems, which can lead to issues with emotional regulation, depression and alertness. 

“This is going to impact patient care,” Dinse said. “If you’re exhausted, it’s going to impact your ability to do your job.”

Retired firefighter Joe Woolard stands outside the firefighter's union headquarters. (Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)
Retired firefighter Joe Woolard stands outside the firefighter’s union headquarters. (Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)

Abundant overtime

Mandatory overtime is a cyclical issue York firefighters experience, according to current and former firefighters. The mandatory overtime shifts are 12 hours long and are added to either the beginning or end of firefighter’s 24-hour shifts.

Personnel typically work more overtime during certain times of the year, such as the summer when staff take vacations or when flu season hits, Fox said.

An abundance of overtime in February, however, is unusual, Dinse said.

By mid-February, total overtime hours had already exceeded five out of six previous months, according to Fire & Life Safety data. Between August 2016 and January 2017, monthly overtime hours ranged from a minimum of 289.75 hours in September 2016 to a maximum of 1,160.25 hours in December 2016, data show.

In the first half of February, Fire & Life Safety staff logged 1,026 overtime hours, averaging about three staff absences per day.

According to Kopczynski, York County budgeted $250,000 in fiscal year 2017 budget to pay firefighter’s overtime.

Lean staffing, more calls

Since 2006, Fire & Life Safety has gained six new first responder positions, bringing the total number of operational staff on shift from 120 to 126 – a five percent increase. The last time firefighters were added to on-shift staff was between 2007 and 2009, Kopczynski said.

From 2009-2015, the annual number of calls increased from 8,323 calls to 9,969 calls – an almost 20 percent increase, according to Fire & Life Safety data.

York County recorded 10,457 emergency calls in 2016, but Kopczynski said the number might be slightly inflated compared to other years due to a migration to new reporting platforms and software.

The county’s population has also increased about eight percent, from 61,252 in 2006 to 66,269 in 2013, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“It’s like Russian roulette,” Dinse said of the lean department staffing. “[Firefighters are] afraid something’s going to happen, either to a citizen of one of them.”

Before the economic recession hit in 2008, Fire & Life Safety administrators were working to grow the department, Kopczynski said.

“When the recession hit, we were lucky not to lose positions,” he said. “Many departments across the nation lost personnel because localities couldn’t afford them… A couple years after the recession, we were able to get a federal grant to maintain three positions we could have lost.”

Kopczynski said in mid-February there were no vacant firefighter positions within the Fire & Life Safety department. All positions were filled with either fully-trained staff or new recruits who were in training, he said.

Old photographs line the walls at York County firefighter's union headquarters. (Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)
Old photographs line the walls at York County firefighters’ union headquarters. (Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)

Retirement and training

Woolard, who retired at age 50, said he found himself struggling to adapt to changes in training, physical challenges, increasing overtime hours and management styles as he grew older.

“If I was there now, I’d probably be very sick,” said Woolard.

Kopczynski attributes the increased amount of overtime to flu season and having many staff in training.

Now, there are nine firefighters who recently completed recruit school at the Tidewater Regional Fire Academy, but cannot work by themselves on shift until they are fully trained in the “field,” Kopczynski said.

There are also 11 more firefighters in recruit school, which started Feb. 13, and five firefighters attending emergency medical technician intermediate training, he said. When firefighters are in training, they typically do not work on-shift.

To compensate, the fire chief has left two personnel on-shift to assist with staffing, although they have been assigned to other divisions, he said.

Retirements have also created a need for new hires, the fire chief said.

Firefighters in Virginia are able to retire at age 50 if they have worked as a firefighter for 25 years.

Of 14 people eligible to retire in 2016, eight firefighters chose to retire.

“We hope if someone is planning to retire, we can plan for that on the front end,” Kopczynski said.

He continued: “We try to overhire some positions if we know someone is leaving or retired,” Kopczynski said. “We know someone is retiring on March 31, so we went to the county administrator and said ‘We know someone’s retiring, can we add an extra firefighter now?’ Because the next training school is not for months.”

responsesSafety at the scene

Dinse believes staffing levels in York County are still far below safe levels.

According to standards developed by the National Fire Protection Association, each fire engine should have at least four personnel on board when responding to a call.

While York County only staffs two personnel on each engine, York Fire & Life Safety uses a composite system.

“The standard does, however, allow for the 4 person response capability to be configured using a pumper and an ambulance that operate together to complete operational procedures,” Kopczynski wrote in an email. “Therefore, for the normal ‘engine company’ structure fire response in York County, the engine and medic unit at the fire stations are dispatched and respond together (again, which is acceptable according to NFPA 1710) under the supervision of a company officer in a configuration that we call a composite company.”

Dinse’s concern is based on the uncertain availability of ambulances at all times. If an ambulance is out on a call, the two personnel on the ambulance are no longer able to respond with the fire engine to a fire, he said.

Kopczynski agreed increasing medic unit activity has made it “more and more difficult to rely on the medic units and crews for ‘engine company’ staffing.”

Woolard said York County relies on mutual aid from surround localities, including James City County, Williamsburg, Poquoson, Newport News and Hampton, to answer some calls.

While York receives help from nearby departments, departments also return the favor by providing mutual aid to other localities.

“It goes both ways,” Woolard said.

Over 20 firefighters flocked to the Feb. 21 Board of Supervisors meeting to make a statement about staffing in Fire & Life Safety. (Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)
Over 20 firefighters flocked to the Feb. 21 Board of Supervisors meeting to make a statement about staffing in Fire & Life Safety. (Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)

Right to work in VA

While a labor union’s job is to advocate for employees, Virginia’s “right to work” status strips unions of any power to advocate through contracts with employers, Dinse said.

Dinse has been elected president of the local firefighter’s union for over two decades.

In some states, labor unions have contracts with employers regarding the welfare and employment of the employees they represent. The employees pay dues to the union for their advocacy, and union uses the contract to ensure employees’ rights are not abridged.

There is no contract between the local chapter of the firefighter’s union and York County Fire & Life Safety, county spokeswoman Gail Whittaker and Dinse confirmed.

“Because Virginia is a right to work state, unions are prohibited from having contracts, which is half the problem,” Dinse said. “When you have collective bargaining, you sit at a table every couple of years and work out these issues. But that’s not how it is here.”

“In Virginia, this is what you get. You get fire departments having to fight in the public’s view for extra fire trucks, staffing, pay and benefits. Everything has to be fought for and it has to be done politically.”

Under Virginia’s “right to work” code section, Virginians cannot be denied employment for being members of a Union. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 5.4 percent of Virginia’s labor force is unionized.

A majority of York County firefighters, about 95 percent, are unionized, Dinse said.

Virginia is also an “at-will employment” state, meaning employers can terminate employment at any time for any reason, Dinse said.

Turnover and pay changes

In 2016, York Fire & Life Safety lost 18 firefighters – about 13 percent of staff answering calls – and hired 18 to fill their place, Kopczynski said.

“Morale has been slowly declining since about 2008, when the pay raises and the stepped pay scale stopped,” Woolard said, adding that he didn’t see any increase in salary from 2008 to 2013. Woolard was a senior firefighter when he retired in 2013.

Kopczynski said there have been salary raises for firefighters in recent years, but a “step plan” pay scale has not been in place since 2009.

Certain positions, including firefighter, senior firefighter and master firefighter, do have given salary ranges, however, Kopczynski said.

“They come to the county, realize they are so severely understaffed, and see there’s no pay structure left in York County,” Dinse said. “The recession froze the pay scale that was in place.”

According to an email sent to WYDaily from Kopczynski: “On July 1, 2016 all employees received a 1% General Wage Increase. Additionally, on October 1, 2016, if an employee was hired with the County between July 1, 2015 to December 31, 2015, they received a $500 adjustment to base salary. If hired June 30, 2015 or prior, they received a $1250 adjustment to base salary. To put it in perspective (the $1,250 adjustment) that equates to 3.125% for a $40,000 year employee or 2.5% for a $50,000 year employee benefitting (percentage wise) lower salary employees more rather than a straight percentage for all.”

Over 20 firefighters flocked to the Feb. 21 Board of Supervisors meeting to make a statement about staffing in Fire & Life Safety. (Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)
Over 20 firefighters flocked to the Feb. 21 Board of Supervisors meeting to make a statement about staffing in Fire & Life Safety. (Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)

Relying on elected officials

Nearly 20 York County firefighters crowded one side of the Board Room in York Hall on the night of Feb. 21, wearing bright red pullover jackets bearing the crest of the local firefighter’s union.

There were no fire department-related items on the Board of Supervisors meeting agenda, but the firefighters were there to make a statement, Dinse said.

“How do people think you can drive a Caddy [Cadillac] on a [Ford] Pinto income,” Dinse said, referring to emergency services funding levels in York County.

Firefighters male and female, young and old, sat shoulder-to-shoulder in a sea of red jackets. Some held notepads, others held their children.

During the board member’s comment period, only one supervisor spoke of concerns in the fire-rescue system.

District 4 Supervisor Jeffrey Wassmer said fire department staffing “continues to be a concern, at least for me.”

Eleven cents of every dollar in York County’s $131.6 million budget goes toward Fire & Life Safety. The department is the second-largest funded budget section, after the York County School Division, with an annual allocation of nearly $14 million.

“I’ve probably been the most outspoken supervisor. I’ve spent time over at the fire station and what not, and so I said during our budget retreat that firefighters would be a priority to me,” Wassmer said, adding he believes other board members are also interesting in improving fire station staffing.

Wassmer, who was elected to the Board in 2015, said he has spoken with both the County Administrator and Kopczynski regarding staffing issues.

Supervisors and county officials have been working for “a while” to improve Fire & Life Safety staffing, before the York County Va 411 Facebook post by Dinse, Wassmer said.

Kopczynski told WYDaily “this whole staffing issue is part of the budget discussion,” he said.

Besides budget increases, Kopczynski has also looked for federal grants to increase staff numbers. In early February, the county submitted an application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a SAFER grant.

If awarded to York County, the grant would partially fund six firefighter positions, with a required county match. The grant would cover 75 percent of the firefighters’ salaries for the first two years and 35 percent of the salaries for the second year. After the first three years, the county must completely cover the salaries.

Between the SAFER grant the county has applied for and a hopeful Fire & Life Safety budget increase, Wassmer hopes the county can add up to eight firefighters to on-shift staff.

“I just want, again, to commit that going forward, I think we have some opportunities in the works,” he said at the Feb. 21 meeting.

“York County is a great place to live, but we also need to make sure it’s a great place to work,” Wassmer said.

Fearing can be reached at sarah.f@localvoicemedia.com.