Changes to the shift schedules Loudoun’s career firefighters work could threaten volunteer and rescue companies, warned the president of one of the county’s largest volunteer departments. But the system chief—and other volunteer firefighters—don’t agree.
As they wrapped up work on a massive overhaul of the county’s payscales and job descriptions, county supervisors directed Combined Fire-Rescue System Chief Keith Johnson to work toward putting all career firefighters on the same schedule, with the 24-hour shifts common in the region. Loudoun is moving toward career personnel at all stations working 24-hours-on, 48-hours-off.
According a February 2019 Fairfax County study of compensation across regional fire departments, every Northern Virginia jurisdiction works some version of the 24-hour shift schedule.
At one time, Loudoun had as many as three different schedules in the fire-rescue system, depending on where a firefighter or EMT was stationed. Some firefighters were working 12-hour daytime shifts to better accommodate volunteers who come in to work nights.
That proved a problem for recruiting and retaining firefighters, who are expensive to train. Being transferred from one station to another—and one schedule to another—could upend a firefighter’s life as they rearrange their personal lives, childcare, classes or other considerations.
“The feeling was … if I offer you a job in Fairfax and in Loudoun, and our pay is somewhat equal, they’re going to pick Fairfax, or Arlington, or Alexandria because they’re not working day work, they’re working a 24-hour shift,” Johnson said.
More recently, Loudoun has simplified things to two schedules, and supervisors’ direction in November 2019 set the department on track to just one.
But Ashburn Volunteer Department President Josh Townsend told county supervisors at their meeting Oct. 20 that the schedule change threatens Loudoun’s long history of volunteerism. Volunteers generally don’t work 24-hour shifts—they often have day jobs.
“We’ve seen that happen in neighboring jurisdictions,” Townsend said. “… Similar changes were made, if not the same changes were made, and the volunteer contingent was pushed to the side and relegated to running second-out, or not at all, an auxiliary at best. That does not enable us to be neighbors helping neighbors, as we say in Ashburn.”
The next day, the Ashburn volunteer department published a press release with the same warning.
“The concern is that if career staff are assigned to a 24-hour schedule, and there’s nowhere else for them to go, that they will be assigned to stations that are currently staffed by volunteers,” Townsend said in an interview. He said at that point, if stations are over-staffed, one of two things may happen: The career staff may take calls in place of the volunteers, or they may be paid to hang around the station while the volunteers run calls.
Those claims set off a furor among leaders of other volunteer departments, including some who were angered with Townsend.
“Purcellville Volunteer Fire Company does not agree with what Ashburn did,” said Purcellville Volunteer Fire Chief Scott Maple, one of the system’s other volunteer chiefs. “Ashburn does not represent nor speak on behalf of Purcellville Volunteer Fire Company, nor do they speak on behalf of the volunteer system.”
Townsend’s warning also caught the system chief off guard. Johnson said he has met with volunteer companies many times, and assured them that they may continue to keep whatever schedule they wish. Firefighters who are on duty at a station when the volunteers come in may head to another station, he said. And he said the change comes with a cost savings to taxpayers, as some career staff will be working more hours at 48 hours a week.
And Townsend said that was good to hear.
“Chief Johnson has told me as long as volunteers continue to staff, we’re not going to displace you,” Townsend said. But he said he also wants the Board of Supervisors to invest in the volunteer system, including a marketing campaign to recruit for the volunteer departments. He also asked for more recognition for volunteers on county social media.
“What the volunteers have asked is not for simple lip service thanking us for our service,” Townsend told supervisors. “We want to serve, as I said. We want to lead services in this county. We ask that the Board of Supervisors instruct the system chief to build a workgroup of volunteer and career staff to benchmark successful combined staffing practices of other jurisdictions.”
“There’s a lot to lose,” Townsend said in the interview. “We take a lot of pride in being in the position that we’re in, and to see that threatened is very concerning to us.”
This article was updated Tuesday, Nov. 3 at 5:52 p.m.