Ashburn Volunteers Sound Warning on Fire-Rescue Schedule Change

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.

8 thoughts on “Ashburn Volunteers Sound Warning on Fire-Rescue Schedule Change

  • 2020-10-30 at 4:28 pm
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    Sad.

    The key word is “volunteer”.
    For years, Loudoun has had hundreds of dedicated volunteers. Loudoun benefited from these volunteers as they were working for FREE in exchange for a flexible schedule.

    Not anymore.

    Volunteers are being flushed and the budget is about to skyrocket so we can say we are like Fairfax County…..

    • 2020-11-01 at 6:31 pm
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      They may “work for free” but they still cost the county millions yearly. They ask for career staffing because they can’t staff their rigs.

      • 2020-11-03 at 5:17 pm
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        Volunteer here (for transparency). To suggest that volunteers cost the county millions yearly is disingenuous at best. While there are expenses associated with supporting the volunteer companies, the benefit to the county far exceeds those expenses. In a 2018 study commissioned by the Loudoun Board of Supervisors showed that even when accounting for the associated expenses, the volunteers contributed a net positive value of nearly $15 million annually (see the full report here: https://loudoun.granicus.com/MetaViewer.php?view_id=74&clip_id=5685&meta_id=150066). Note that this was a value analysis, not a replacement cost analysis. If the later was conducted, we would likely see that the cost to replace volunteers with career staff would be much higher (e.g. – the volunteers may earn up to a $300/month retirement payment after 25 years of service credit; the career firefighter/EMT certainly has a much higher retirement payment). Essentially, the costs that you mention would all still be required to cover career staffing but at a significantly higher rate.

        The Value of the Volunteers report also did not account for efficiencies that volunteer companies provide. For example, the Ashburn fire station was constructed (a landmark building on land already owned by the volunteers) for approximately $9m and provides . In comparison, the most recently constructed Station 27 (Kirkpatrick Farms) was budgeted at $13.4 million and due to delays and management issues resulted in higher costs. To aid in the comparison of station costs, please consider that the Ashburn station is 29,225 sq ft, whereas the Kirkpatrick Farms station is 17,874 sq ft. Essentially, the volunteers built 38% more sq ft for 35% less cost (and a much classier building to boot).

        As for not able to staff rigs, there are many factors that go into this. Certainly there are occasions when volunteers are unable to staff a rig due to callouts (sickness, business travel, etc.). However, the same is true of the career staffing – there have been times lately where urgent messages were sent out asking for career staff to work overtime due to shortages (volunteers even offered to cover these but were denied).

        And yes, the County does provide Recruitment and Retention support to the volunteers. However, the programs are not optimized to the levels that the citizens of Loudoun deserve. Considering the return on investment to the taxpayers by the volunteer companies, the County would do well to double-down on growing the volunteer presence in the county instead of bullying them out of existence.

      • 2020-11-07 at 11:44 am
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        Volunteer here (for transparency). To suggest that volunteers cost the county millions yearly is disingenuous at best. While there are expenses associated with supporting the volunteer companies, the benefit to the county far exceeds those expenses. In a 2018 study commissioned by the Loudoun Board of Supervisors showed that even when accounting for the associated expenses, the volunteers contributed a net positive value of nearly $15 million annually (see the full report here: https://loudoun.granicus.com/MetaViewer.php?view_id=74&clip_id=5685&meta_id=150066). Note that this was a value analysis, not a replacement cost analysis. If the later was conducted, we would likely see that the cost to replace volunteers with career staff would be much higher (e.g. – the volunteers may earn up to a $300/month retirement payment after 25 years of service credit; the career firefighter/EMT certainly has a much higher retirement payment). Essentially, the costs that you mention would all still be required to cover career staffing but at a significantly higher rate.

        The Value of the Volunteers report also did not account for efficiencies that volunteer companies provide. For example, the Ashburn fire station was constructed (a landmark building on land already owned by the volunteers) for approximately $9m. In comparison, the most recently constructed Station 27 (Kirkpatrick Farms) was budgeted at $13.4 million and due to delays and management issues resulted in higher costs. To aid in the comparison of station costs, please consider that the Ashburn station is 29,225 sq ft, whereas the Kirkpatrick Farms station is 17,874 sq ft. Essentially, the volunteers built 38% more sq ft for 35% less cost (and a much classier building to boot). The same comparisons can be made on apparatus, uniform costs, etc. Bottom line – the abilities of our neighbors who volunteer their time and talents to bettering our community brings expertise and efficiencies that local government agencies cannot.

        As for not able to staff rigs, there are many factors that go into this. Certainly there are occasions when volunteers are unable to staff a rig due to callouts (sickness, business travel, etc.). However, the same is true of the career staffing – there have been times lately where urgent messages were sent out asking for career staff to work overtime due to shortages (volunteers have even offered to cover these positions at times but were denied).

        And yes, the County does provide Recruitment and Retention support to the volunteers. However, the programs are not optimized to the levels that the citizens of Loudoun deserve. Considering the return on investment to the taxpayers by the volunteer companies, the County would do well to double-down on growing the volunteer presence in the county instead of bullying them out of existence.

  • 2020-10-30 at 4:30 pm
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    Given that the Board of Supervisors is pressing unionized labor in Loudoun public service, I have to think Townsend is correct that, “the schedule change threatens Loudoun’s long history of volunteerism.”

    That is probably the point. Over time, push out the volunteers and replace them with future unionized personnel that pay union dues that get funneled to the Democrat Party.

    It is the Democrat money-laundering machine. Take from the taxpayer, give to the union dues payer, cut check to Party.

    • 2020-11-01 at 6:28 pm
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      The career firemen in Loudoun have been mostly “unionized” since the late 90’s. Plenty of Republican majority boards during that time. The volunteer system has been declining/failing for over 20 years. That’s why there’s more and more career firemen and most stations are 24/7 career staffed. It has nothing to do with unions. People don’t work and live near the fire houses and don’t have the time commitment. The new schedule isn’t threatening anything. It’s saving the county money.

  • 2020-11-01 at 11:15 am
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    Doesn’t LCFR already spend millions on recruitment and retention for volunteers? Don’t they have paid staff dedicated to R&R? The system has been in the decline nationally and regionally for the past decade. There’s a reason why more and more volunteer stations are asking for career staffing. Tossing more money for recruitment is just a bandaid on an arterial bleed.

    • 2020-11-05 at 9:42 pm
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      This type of attitude from career firefighters towards volunteers, plus the combination system treating volunteers as red-headed stepchildren, has certainly put a strain on the volunteer system. If the combination system treated volunteers and career personnel with parity, I doubt we’d be seeing the system declining.

      I’d be interested in seeing your data on arterial bleed – recruitment seems to be going way up for volunteers as the folks who live in Loudoun are taking an active interest and role in serving their neighbors and helping to control government costs and overreach.

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