Charlottesville’s fire department is understaffed and underpaid, officials say, but that’s not stopping them from looking at programs to help residents react to emergencies before crews can get to a scene.
Currently, the department can send three firefighters on any particular call, putting them one short of a full crew, according to Fire Chief Hezedean Smith. He said he’s requesting additional staff in the upcoming budget.
“Our firefighters are not paid what is comparable to just [Albemarle County] next door,” Smith told the City Council at a Monday work session. “I’m pleading with you to support our firefighters because it ties in with retention, it ties in with recruitment, it ties in with their families.”
Smith said most firefighters live outside of the city limits because of the costs of living in town.
“I can probably count on one hand how many of them live in the city of Charlottesville. They travel for hours sometimes to come and serve this community,” he said. “It’s not going to be fixed immediately, but I think you, the council, should be able to at least address it just a little bit.”
Smith said it is important to consider not only pay and benefits for firefighters, but also ensuring their safety. A big way to help with this would be hiring more firefighters who can respond to calls, he said.
“We’re looking to ask for six additional firefighters because we need four firefighters on the truck,” Smith said. “We need that and I want to make sure that every firefighter goes home safely. I don’t want what happened in other cities to happen here in the city of Charlottesville, and we’ve had some significant incidents within the last 13 months.”
Despite lean staffing, the department is working on programs Smith said could help prevent emergencies or provide immediate response before crews arrive. He told the council the plans are 21st Century emergency response.
The department has been focusing on incident prevention, especially through its Community Risk Reduction program. The department has been collecting data on city hot spots for high rates of cardiac arrests, mental health emergencies, drug overdoses and other medical incidents and trying to develop solutions to help the specific neighborhoods and communities.
“It’s not just about running with lights and sirens to medical calls and car accidents and things of that nature,” Smith said. “It’s actually becoming actually more engaged in our community and educating our community and hopefully they can recognize early signs and symptoms of stroke, heart attack and things of that sort.”
The department is planning to release a local version of an app called Pulse Point, a 911-connected app that can immediately inform people of emergencies occurring in their community and can request help when CPR is needed nearby.
“It prepares our community members to be able to respond to cardiac arrest emergencies in a public venue and ultimately even start CPR and hopefully enhance the chance of somebody recovering,” Smith said.
Smith also said he is looking to implement a “Narcan leave-behind program” to supply people at risk of a drug overdose with the lifesaving emergency treatment. Smith implemented a similar program when he worked in Orlando, Florida.
“We actually put them on the ambulances. So when the crews responded to an overdose and took care of the patient, after it was all said and done, they turned to a family member or someone who’s there and said here’s a Narcan leave-behind kit. Here’s the instructions. These are some of the signs you need to look for.”
Crews also provided information on how to get addiction help and delivered Narcan to certain areas and neighborhoods that were at higher risk of drug overdoses, and he’d like to do something similar here.
“And it was very successful and I think it’s an easily implemented process in the city,” Smith said.