Fire defections take toll on Frederick Posted: June 4, 2013 By Melissa Boughton The Winchester Star WINCHESTER — Frederick County Fire and Rescue “is taking a pretty big hit” when it comes to losing employees to other area departments. “We’re starting to have a pretty high turnover rate,” Fire Chief Denny Linaburg said at a Monday morning Public Safety Committee meeting at the Public Safety Bu...ilding on Coverstone Drive. “There’s no use of sugar coating this any more.” According to Linaburg, Frederick has lost 21 employees to other departments since 2008 and another 13 are in the process of leaving. With 64 funded positions spread across its 11 fire companies, the current turnover rate since 2008 is 32 percent. If the department loses the 13 other employees, that number will rise to 52 percent. “I wouldn’t say we’re at critical mass, but I’d like to be able to slow down the outflux,” Linaburg said. He said the department is also seeing shortfalls with the experience levels of new applicants, and that not having a training academy hurts the department. In the past, if someone with a certain set of qualifications left, the department could typically hire back someone with equal or near equal qualifications. However, Linaburg said, those qualified applicants are going to other departments. “We’re hiring them in at a basic level [right now],” Linaburg said. Deputy Fire Chief William R. Bowmaster said the department recently had two hiring sessions to fill four vacant positions, and the results were not promising. “The first resulted in only two [potential] firefighters, and they have only the minimum qualifications with very little experience,” he said. The second session started with 45 registered applicants, but only 21 showed up the day of testing. Of those, five failed the written test, one failed the physical agility test and three were rejected after a review of their applications. Of the candidates who remain to fill the four positions, all are inexperienced. “After interviews, background checks, driver checks, polygraph and pre-employment physicals, it is very doubtful we will get enough [qualified candidates] to fill the four current vacancies,” Bowmaster said.
If positions can’t be filled, it will result in pulling career staff from some of the county’s 11 stations and relocating them to others. The department typically has two career staff members per fire station, which Bowmaster said leaves Frederick shorthanded to begin with. Relocating firefighters would leave some stations without guaranteed staffing and would result in an increased delay in response times, according to Bowmaster. He warned that it could also result in leaving “rookies with rookies.” “To have two of those inexperienced could be catastrophic,” he added. He said it could be dangerous “to life and limb” both for the department and the residents they are charged with protecting. Another scenario is that the department could have to start using the fire marshals and training officers to staff stations. Bowmaster said that would cause “extensive delays” in new building inspections and the suspension of the Volunteer Fire and Emergency Medical Service academies — which would cause a significant decline in future volunteer staff. Linaburg said the department has about 200 volunteer firefighters right now, but even they are experiencing difficulties with how much they can do. “I want more staff across the board,” he said. Linaburg said the department is also losing staff because of salary competition. “Money is the root of keeping them happy for the most part,” Linaburg said of fire and rescue personnel. The Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department’s starting salary is $50,492.11, compared to $34,744.25 in Frederick, according to numbers provided by local officials. The Faquier County Department of Fire and Emergency Services, where the starting salary is $46,000, is, like Fairfax, actively recruiting in the area. Many other departments also offer employee benefits that Frederick does not, including retiree health insurance, tuition assistance, built-in overtime, child care assistance, short-term disability, savings bonds and health and financial education. Frederick County Fire and Rescue isn’t the only local agency experiencing the problem.
Winchester Police Department spokeswoman Lauren Cummings said there have been four people leave for other law enforcement agencies so far this year. “Most of it is because of salary,” she said. Some of the positions they left for paid $20,000 or more than what they were making in Winchester, she said. “It’s tough to keep people when you’re looking at that kind of pay difference,” Cummings added. To help the situation, she said the department is working hard on recruitment and trying to make up for the salary differences in other areas. She used take-home police cruisers as an example of a benefit offered by Winchester that many departments do not. Frederick County Sheriff’s Office experienced similar loss last year. Of the department’s 121 full-time deputies, four had filed applications at the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office in Leesburg and two others were waiting for their paperwork to be processed as of April 2012. Capt. John Heflin previously said that the starting salary for a deputy in Frederick is $32,778, while the average in Loudoun is $44,690. Winchester Interim Fire and Rescue Chief Frank Wright said he hasn’t seen a large turnover to other departments recently, though there have been a couple instances. “There’s only so much you can do,” he said. “We can’t compete dollar for dollar with the folks east of here.” He said the department tries to offer attractive schedules and works with the city to try and keep competitive benefits. Linaburg said the county needs to get more competitive all around. One solution brought up at Monday’s meeting was to create a training academy to bring the “cream of the crop” to the area. County Administrator John R. Riley Jr. expressed interest in that idea as a long-term solution, and asked that the department provide him with numbers at the next meeting for what it would cost. “We are always going to be at a disadvantage because of our geographic location in Virginia,” Riley pointed out. “What do we do to make ourselves better here, to make ourselves more attractive?”
Gary Lofton, chairman of the public safety committee and a member of the Frederick County Board of Supervisors, encouraged Linaburg and others to think outside of the box and come to the next meeting with ideas. He said the department needs to get innovative to be more attractive to prospective employees. “Money wise, I can never imagine being able to compete with them over the mountain,” Linaburg assured. “We may start a trend tomorrow that no one else has.” Another meeting on the issues, solutions and estimates on costs is scheduled for July 2. Public safety committee meetings are open to the public. — Contact Melissa Boughton at firstname.lastname@example.orgSee More