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Firefighters union calls for funding boost to improve medical treatment, retain personnel

Arlington County firefighters rescue a window washer dangling in a safety harness in the 1500 block of Wilson Blvd last year (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

The Arlington firefighters union says the county’s proposed 2022-23 budget underfunds the fire department and puts residents in unnecessary danger, but county officials dispute the characterization.

The union wants the budget to support having someone with Advanced Life Support training on each fire department vehicle, something that county officials say is not necessary. ALS providers are certified to treat critically ill patients with life-saving drugs or intravenous medicines, among other training that goes beyond basic emergency medical care, also called Basic Life Support.

Currently, Arlington has a mix of ALS and BLS medic units on duty at any given time.

The budget also does not include premium pay for the Swift Water Rescue Team to reflect the riskier work they do, while wages have stagnated for rank-and-file members, according to the union.

IAFF 2800, which represents more than 300 firefighters, proposes adding $8.5 million to the 2022-23 budget to address these issues.

Budgeting decisions regarding wages “have led to diminished emergency services at the risk of potential harm to the citizens, businesses and visitors of Arlington,” the union said in a letter to the Arlington County Board and County Manager Mark Schwartz. “It is with this in mind that we bring these issues to the forefront before it escalates to a point that causes unnecessary harm to the community we serve.”

The $8.5 million would provide a 7% raise to keep up with inflation, make firefighters whole for missed pay increases since 2018, provide premium pay for responders who took on more work due to labor shortages, and increase compensation for the Swift Water Rescue Team, IAFF says.

County Manager Mark Schwartz says the union’s account is inaccurate and the county has not been cutting costs.

“All County residents should know that there is no ‘unnecessarily hazardous situation’ and that each resident can rely on a strong and well-trained workforce to respond to their needs,” he said in response.

Specifically, ACFD has stepped up its medical care without “over-resourcing” every call through mobile diagnoses, on-site treatments and new technologies that give patients more options, he said, adding that “not every patient needs an Advanced Life Support provider.”

Schwartz says the Swift Water Rescue Team does not receive premium pay, but he is committed to adding compensation for the team in addition to funding that addresses stagnant wages.

Employee compensation is the chief focus of the 2022-23 budget, which is currently being hammered out. Schwartz proposes 6.5% salary increases for public safety employees and a $2.2 million increase for the fire department over the 2022 budget, according to a recent presentation.

The summary of the 2022-23 budget for the fire department (via Arlington County)

Among other changes, the increase would fund the implementation of the Kelly Day, which will reduce each firefighter’s average work week from 56 to 50 hours, improving work-life balance and reducing attrition, the county says. The county hired nearly 40 additional firefighters over four years to instate the Kelly Day.

Today, the department is close to full staffing and is experiencing vacancies comparable to Arlington’s historical average, Schwartz said. ACFD loses about two employees a month, and there are currently 15 uniform vacancies.

“I hope that the historic investments we have made over the past four years in a reduced work week and exemplary practices will continue to attract the best staff in the nation,” he said.

How the budget for the fire department is expected to change (via Arlington County)

Those investments came after firefighters fought for wage increases over the past few years, says IAFF 2800 President Brian Lynch, adding that the Kelly Day staved off more departures.

“If we didn’t have the Kelly Day, we would’ve lost more people over this time period,” he said. “Plenty of firefighters have been looking at this for four years, waiting for this to come as one of two material improvements.”

The other improvement — merit-based pay increases — has yet to come through, Lynch said. Salaries start at $56,000 and members of the 2018 recruit class should be making more than $66,700 per year. Instead, he says, many are making only a few hundred dollars more.

These increases would keep experienced firefighters in ACFD, he says.

Fairfax County, where many Arlington firefighters live, is a popular destination because of its expedited, 10-week training program for veteran firefighters, who otherwise would have to repeat basic training and start take a pay cut if they move, IAFF 2800 organizer Jeremy McClayton said.

“We will lose more people if we don’t make ourselves more competitive, more quickly,” he said.

Schwartz says “funding to address pay compression, a significant issue addressed by Local 2800,” is included in the budget.

Lynch says he is hoping members of the County Board, with whom the union is meeting, will commit to expanding ACFD’s budget.

“I will give them credit they put collective bargaining on the map,” Lynch said. “That shows they value public servants and what we have to say, and we’re hopeful that out of those conversations we can forge a better path forward.”

For its next move, the union plans to launch a petition members of the public can sign to demonstrate their support for more funding.

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