Charlottesville firefighters say they are exhausted and burned out from working overtime to keep the department’s ambulances operating.
City officials need to skip budgetary bandages and hire more staff, they say.
Officials with the city’s firefighter union say some crew members are working up to 120 hours a week to cover shifts on the department’s Fire Medic 1 ambulance stationed at the Ridge Street firehouse and Fire Medic 10 at the Fontaine Avenue station.
All of that overtime is costly. According to fire department figures, between Jan. 1 and Feb. 20, the department paid out $84,102 in overtime. Of that, $64,574 was to staff the Fire Medic 10 ambulance and put enough people onto firetrucks.
In addition, the department paid out $12,228 in overtime to staff Fire Medic 1 who worked 12 hours a day during that time.
Another $7,300 in overtime was spent from Jan. 18 to Feb. 20 to cover additional shifts when the Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad did not have a paramedic-level crew member on duty.
To cover demand, Charlottesville Fire Chief Andrew Baxter told staff in a memo that the department would reassign medics to ambulances from jobs in the department that usually do not go out on calls — including his own.
City officials have proposed a $250,000 line item in the fire department budget to cover overtime, but even that does not fully address the problem, firefighters said.
The union supports a $1.3 million budget request submitted by Baxter to hire enough personnel to fully staff the ambulances 24 hours a day.
“We’re not some labor group that just wants, wants, wants. There are industry standards and they’re not close to being met,” said firefighter Greg Wright, who is president of the city firefighters union. “These are safety issues for us and for the citizens, and that’s why we’re asking for these things. There are needs that are not being met.”
Charlottesville fire crews normally work 24-hour shifts, one day on, one day off for five days. Then they are supposed to have four days off.
“The first day of that weekend is spent just decompressing and getting back to your normal life. You then have some time to do things with your family or take care of things around the house,” Wright said. “But with the staff shortage, it’s easy to get into a situation where you’re working 72 hours straight. Then you have 24 hours off and have to come back and work another 48 hours straight. There is very little downtime and almost no time for family.”
The fire department budget request would hire a dozen more firefighters to staff the ambulances, which provide advanced emergency medical care for incidents such as heart attacks and strokes, car crashes and life-threatening trauma.
City Manager Tarron Richardson is expected to present his proposed budget Friday.
The union and fire department administrators have been trying for at least two years to get Charlottesville officials to hire more personnel, according to emails and documents from the city.
Adorned in bright yellow shirts, firefighters have attended City Council meetings in the past few weeks, urging the council to support the funding request. Some residents showed up to council meetings to support them.
During a recent meeting, activist Don Gathers urged the council to support the fire department’s request.
“I don’t think we can put a price on the safety of the citizens of Charlottesville,” he said.
At a budget work session earlier this month, Richardson focused on shifting resources to address staffing issues and was not in support of adding positions immediately.
“What I’m saying is that is a lot of money all at once, but if you do it progressively over time, we can be able to get to certain places,” he said at the meeting. “But doing it all at once — you know and I know that’s not realistic — but we can look at a plan for us to move forward.”
On Jan. 18, Baxter wrote to staff ordering Fire Medic 1 into service despite the overtime requirements to ensure a minimum of two fully staffed medic units were in service for emergencies in the city.
A medic unit has at least one paramedic as part of the crew. Paramedics must go through a two-year certification program that is often awarded as a college degree. They have significantly more medical training than emergency medical technicians, or EMTs, who respond to most ambulance calls.
“Our planning will consider utilizing existing [fire department] staff to place Fire Medic 1 in service as necessary to ensure adequate city medic unit coverage,” Baxter wrote to staff. “We will consider multiple options, including assigning already scheduled shift personnel in excess of our daily minimum staffing levels, overtime sign-ups, as well as the redeployment of medics, of all ranks — including me — from non-operations section assignments to medic unit slots.”
Between Jan. 18 and Feb. 3, the crews on Fire Medic 1 ran about 15 additional 12-hour shifts and clocked 107 hours in overtime pay, fire department figures show. How much money was spent to pay for that overtime was not immediately available.
The city never approved full crews when the two ambulances went into operation, firefighters and department administrators said. National industry standards recommend nine crew members for every ambulance that runs 24 hours a day. That provides for three crew members per shift to cover operations and off-site training and professional development, injuries, personal family sickness and approved leave.
The City Council approved three new crew members — one per shift — when the Fontaine station’s Fire Medic 10 ambulance went into 24-hour service in 2018.
No additional crews were added when the Ridge Street Fire Medic 1 ambulance went into service. The unit is scheduled to respond to calls from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays, which are the peak times for emergency calls. It always has been staffed by crews working overtime.
“They created an additional fire company that had to be staffed and it put us into an overtime deficit right away and off the bat,” Wright said. “There have been two city managers and an interim city manager that have been made aware of this problem. We started working with Maurice Jones and then interim manager Mike Murphy and now City Manager [Richardson]. We’re working about 36 hours a pay period in overtime. That’s an average, but it’s pretty accurate.”
City fire officials estimate that overtime for Fire Medic 1 alone costs between $200,000 and $240,000 each year for 60 hours per week of coverage. That overtime increases when the volunteer-staffed Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad cannot staff an advanced life support ambulance because of a shortage of paramedics.
CARS provides basic life support ambulances for the city and the county. It primarily answers calls involving illness, falls and non-life-threatening medical issues, which account for more than 70% of medical calls.
The CARS governing board has drafted a letter of support for the fire department’s budget request and has sent it to Richardson, organization officials said.
Changes in industry standards adopted in the last decade eliminated a level of advanced training, called an intermediate EMT, that was authorized to respond to calls in place of a paramedic.
“Our partners with [CARS] have redefined their mission as a basic life support agency and can no longer consistently provide advanced life support transport service,” Deputy Fire Chief Emily Pelliccia wrote in a Dec. 3 email to city administrators.
That decreased the ability of CARS to respond to the most serious emergency calls and put more of the responsibility on the city fire department and the Albemarle County Fire Rescue Division.
“This is not a question of the ability of CARS to perform their job. They do a great job and we need them. Their service is built into the fabric of emergency response in the community,” Wright said. “We want them to be successful. We need their support, but they cover both the city and the county. They may have a unit in Scottsville, one in Earlysville and another in the urban ring when there is a call in the city.”
All city firefighters and police officers are certified as EMTs or advanced-level EMTs, with about 30 of those also certified as paramedics.
According to the city, firefighters start out making $40,302 a year. Salaries may go as high as $65,305.42, depending on years of service and training. Of the city’s current staff of 57 firefighters, 37 make less than $50,000, before overtime, according to department figures.
Overtime increases during special events, such as the city’s Unity Day celebration and other events and festivals.
After the violent August 2017 Unite the Right rally, the department added street medics to provide immediate medical care in case of injuries or illness. Those positions also are filled with employees working overtime.
Firefighters say they love their jobs but are getting burned out from the constant overtime. They also feel like the city administration has ignored the problem.
“We’ve tried to be quiet. We’ve tried to make do,” Wright said. “People tend to think of firefighters as experts on public safety matters until we discuss staffing and funding — and then they want us to stay in our lanes.”