ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Some Alexandria firefighters say their department is too underfunded and too short-staffed to provide their city the level of life-saving services it needs.
Alexandria Firefighters, Inc. IAFF Local 2141, recently sent a letter to Alexandria City Manager Mark Jinks, Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson, and the Alexandria City Council detailing the impact the department’s current funding situation has had on servicemembers’ daily rescue efforts.
The letter claims the department is short-staffed by 70 people. The union adds that has had a negative trickle-down effect on the Alexandria Fire Department’s operations.
It says due to the staffing shortage, some of the department’s fire engines and ambulances are not staffed with Advanced Life Support providers. Those are medics and firefighters who are certified to give patients medication or cardiac life support.
“This means that, if an ambulance arrives today, the staff on board may not even be able to give a citizen ibuprofen, let alone provide the lifesaving drugs or intravenous medicines needed on many of the emergency calls we perform,” the letter reads.
The union also said its "Heavy Rescue Squad" has been disbanded to help provide staffing in other parts of the department where it is needed. The Heavy Rescue Squad assists in swift water rescue operations, construction emergencies, and vehicle extractions, according to the union.
IAFF Local 2141 Executive Board Member Megan Ellzy also works as a fire captain in the Alexandria Fire Department.
She said the department now relies on assistance from firefighters in Arlington and Fairfax counties to complete some of the tasks the Heavy Rescue Squad used to do.
She said that sometimes results in delays of service for Alexandria city residents.
“When you're talking about something like floodwaters or swift water, if we're having an issue with that [in Alexandria], then it's pretty reasonable to say that Arlington's team and Fairfax's team is dealing with that in their own jurisdiction,” she said.
Ellzy has worked in the Alexandria Fire Department for ten years. She says the morale in the department is currently the lowest she has ever seen during her tenure.
She said the department is facing a myriad of problems. Ellzy said one of the department’s biggest issues is that it does not offer competitive salaries for effective staff retention and recruitment.
“What people are finding out now is that they can stay around where their houses are and get paid the same,” she said. “A lot of people are kind of being confronted with that. Why would I drive 40 minutes to an hour plus, when I could be doing the same job making the same amount of money in Annapolis, Maryland, or in Fauquier County.”
Ellzy said she makes a forty-minute commute to work from her home in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. She said of the Alexandria Fire Department’s 250-plus staff members, only six live in the city that they serve.
“Salary-wise, most of us can't afford to live in the city,” she said.
WUSA9 reached out to Alexandria city leaders about the claims provided by IAFF Local 2141. A spokesperson provided a statement on the behalf of the City of Alexandria.
“The City recognizes that the stressed labor market has contributed to Alexandria Fire Department staffing challenges,” the statement reads. “The National Capital Region is a rich market for fire and emergency services, which makes it challenging to compete and recruit in this region.”
The city also claimed the fire department always maintains a 66-person minimum staffing level of firefighters and medics and that the 24/7 staffing it provides now is higher today than it was ten years ago.
“The City also implemented a firefighter-medic program which has increased the medical response capability of the Fire Department,” the statement reads. “The residents and businesses in the City remain safe.”
The city added that as a result of the tight labor market for firefighters, it has instituted “dynamic staffing” similar to neighboring jurisdictions.
“This has meant transferring firefighters from desk jobs to fire stations, utilizing overtime, and better aligning basic and advanced medical services with the type of call received,” the statement reads. “A fall 2021 recruit school started this month and another recruit school will start in the first quarter of 2022, which should result in approximately 60 persons being hired to fill existing and likely future vacancies, thereby reducing overtime needs.”
In its letter to Alexandria city administrators, IAFF Local 2141 also said it was worried a department station may have to shut down in the future due to the staffing shortage. However, the city said there is currently no discussion about any station closing for staffing reasons.
Still, Ellzy said she is worried Alexandria city leaders are not taking some of the issues facing the fire department seriously.
“I'd say unless we see a big commitment and change from the city council, the city administration, and the city manager, I don't see this being corrected anytime soon,” she said.
Alexandria firefighters are not the only ones in the region asking for more support from government leaders.
On September 20, IAFF Arlington Local 2800 released a press released that claimed without salary adjustments, Arlington County could see more firefighters leave its department in the future too.