When County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) gave her first-of-its-kind State of the County Address last month, she pointed out a problem in Loudoun’s combined fire-rescue system:
“Unfortunately, I must report our Loudoun firefighters are compensated at a significantly lower rate than their counterparts in the entire Washington metro region,” Randall said. “Because of this, new firefighters who are trained in Loudoun often leave and take with them their training and potential.”
It’s not entirely a new complaint. A few days before Randall’s address, the county government launched a classification and compensation study to update its outdated job descriptions and pay scales. County managers say they regularly have to make exceptions to the county’s compensation pay scale to stay competitive with other area jurisdictions. The first phase of that study, in which a consulting firm will conduct a comprehensive review of the county’s pay scale, is expected to take about a year.
A survey of county employee turnover in fiscal year 2015 showed that while 10 percent of all county employees left their jobs voluntarily, only 6.1 percent of fire and rescue employees—about 33 people—left voluntarily.
That seems lower, but the leaders of the Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management say there is a problem—the county spends a lot of time and money training new recruits, and traditionally, once a firefighter joins a department, he or she stays put.
And a vacancy in a fire-rescue job has big impacts.
“There’s got to be three people on the fire truck,” said Combined Fire-Rescue System Chief W. Keith Brower Jr. “There’s got to be two people on the ambulance. I’ve got to have bodies in seats.”
But filling those seats takes, conservatively, 18 months from the time the position is advertised. Then the recruit must go through written tests, physical tests, a background investigation, an interview—and then wait for the next recruit school.
The recruit school trains 15 people at a time at a minimum. That means that not only does it take time to complete a hire, but training has to wait until there are enough vacancies to fill. On the other hand, it also means the department can only hire so many at once.
“We did a double recruit school that just graduated in May, with 60 people, and it damn near broke the training center,” Brower said. There’s only so much space in the school, he explained, and only so many instructors.
Deputy Chief Matt Tobia estimates the up-front basic training costs of a new recruit are between $40,000 and $50,000 per recruit.
“Although our attrition rate is lower than the county’s, the economic impact to the county and to the citizens is dramatic,” Tobia said.
In the meantime, filling those empty seats with employees working overtime is also expensive. But Brower says the department’s growing so fast, it’s hard to know how many extra employees to hire—or to keep up.
“The huge challenge for us is not the [turnover rate], it’s not the year they’re leaving, it’s the reaction time needed to get another person to where that individual was in their career,” Brower said.
With all that time and money spent on a new recruit, why do some firefighters leave?
Fire-rescue chiefs and leaders of the local chapter of the International Association of Firefighters say there’s more than one reason.
The Pay and the Sag
Loudoun firefighters start at $41,539, compared with $47,299 in Prince William County or $48,404 in Fairfax County.
But more importantly, Loudoun firefighters don’t get the guaranteed annual raises of other departments. Most departments—Fairfax included—have step systems, with salaries for each year of experience listed. A recruit joining a step system today knows roughly what he or she will be making in 20 years, and can plan accordingly.
“A step system allows employees with longevity to understand their salary structure over the span of their career, and make better planning and promotional steps toward career development,” wrote International Association of Firefighters Local 3756 vice president Dillon Huss in an email.
By contrast, Loudoun firefighters get the same raises as other county employees, which creates uncertainty. In some years, that has meant no raise at all. In other years, increases were tied to a flawed pay-for-performance system, which the county abandoned this year.
Loudoun’s fire and rescue employees also suffer something well known to the school system: the so-called salary sag.
In the past, as entry salaries have been raised to stay competitive, the salaries of current, mid-career employees haven’t always grown at the same rate.
“One of the largest complaints is about those who are tenured, with seven, eight, nine years, and are not promoted, and only making one or two dollars more than people we just hired,” said Deputy Chief James Williams, who is responsible for the department’s human resources and assets.
Brower has asked the county to fix this with its classification and compensation study. The needs of a paramilitary 24-hour system don’t fit well into a civilian compensation plan.
“One of the things I’ve asked is that we consider public safety as its own little island out here,” Brower said. “Because for 32 years, my experience has been we’ve been this square peg in a round hole.”
Firefighters are used to working long hours. But problems arise when those hours aren’t consistent.
In part because it works to accommodate and support volunteer squads, Loudoun’s fire and rescue department operates on different shift schedules at different stations. Some stations have schedules that run 12 hours a day, five days a week; others, seven days a week for 12 hours; and yet others, 24 hours on, 72 hours off. Firefighters who are transferred to different stations as the department continues to grow can see drastic changes to their schedules.
“Most of the Washington DC regional fire departments have a consistent 24 hours a day, 7 days a week schedule that becomes an attraction point in the overall compensation package,” Huss wrote. “The multiple types of shifts could disrupt our member’s ability to cover child care needs, family home environment, and overall commuting.”
The 24 hours on, 72 hours off schedule, which is most common in the DC metro area, allows firefighters to live far from their department, and in Loudoun’s case, avoid the high cost of living.
“This makes it hard for public safety employees to afford to live in the community,” Huss wrote. “Some of our members commute longer distances to work in Loudoun County. Employees are educated on the affordable housing options, but it is not always available for everyone.”
An analysis of county employees’ home ZIP codes shows that, while 51 percent of all county employees live in Loudoun, only 26 percent of fire and rescue employees do. Firefighters live as far away as Sherburne, NY, and Virginia Beach. Schedule changes disrupt all that.
“That’s tough, because we have a young department,” Brower said. “We have an age bracket that’s family-oriented here.”
“A change across various schedules could require a short notice requiring difficulty in finding child care, causing a disruption in the home environment,” Huss wrote.
Some turnover is unavoidable. Millennials generally have more careers in their lives than previous generations, and some young firefighters just want the action urban departments see.
“I’d say everybody has their individual drives,” Williams said. “They have their individual motivations. There are 100 things that attract me to working in Loudoun County that do not attract me to working in DC, but that doesn’t mean that’s what a 22-year-old kid is looking for.”
“Some people just want that inner-city, urban environment,” Brower said.
The Good News
But there are still great incentives to be a Loudoun firefighter.
“The county’s already done some tremendous things,” Tobia said. During this year’s budget deliberations, the board voted to make a substantial increase in retirement benefits, and the county has moved to a different pay scale that more reliably guarantees raises.
Loudoun also offers opportunities firefighters won’t find many other places.
“We do have a competitive salary,” Tobia said, comparing to the wider DC-Baltimore region. “And we certainly offer outstanding promotional opportunities. The opportunity for professional growth in our county is nearly unparalleled in the United States right now.” He says Deputy Chief Williams is an example—with 16 years of experience, Williams is a senior executive in the department.
“In many departments, it takes 25 or 28 years to get to that level of senior executive leadership, but because we’re growing so fast, and because we are so progressive in promotion from within, those opportunities are much more dynamic here,” Tobia said. He also said the county offers plenty of opportunities for firefighters to get advanced training.
Williams agreed, and said even without the urban environment, Loudoun has some adventures for young firefighters.
“I look at the Metro coming as something that’s going to bring us more challenges and unique experiences that not all departments, or not all fire personnel, will experience in their careers,” Williams said.
“This is a safe community because the Board of Supervisors and our leaders have invested in their public safety,” Tobia said. “It’s a world-class organization with outstanding equipment, facilities, and training opportunities.”
What Do We Do?
If the department gets its wishes, firefighters could see a change to a stepped salary scale after the county’s classification and compensation study. Fire chiefs say the schedule, on the other hand, is unavoidable without creating problems with Loudoun’s strong volunteer system, which they note has a good relationship with career firefighters.
“Our local [IAFF chapter] does believe Loudoun County needs to become more competitive in the region to assist in retaining our highly trained firefighters and paramedics, who provide the highest professionalism and service to our citizens and visitors,” Huss said.
And there may be other options beyond the results of the classification and compensation study, Tobia said. “Certainly, there are things that the board may consider. Workforce housing might be an opportunity,” he added.
He also said the department would “need to be willing to listen carefully to our incumbent employees about their concerns.”
“We want to be the employer of choice in the metropolitan region,” Tobia said.
Randall pointed out in her State of the County address that the county’s 446 career firefighters alongside its active 800 volunteers, answer on average 82 calls a day.
“On behalf of a grateful county,” Randall said, “I acknowledge and thank our firefighters for their remarkable commitment to the county.”