Navy firefighters in Va. facing shortage

Union leaders say their members are suffering under exhausting schedules and that complaints to their civilian and Navy bosses haven't yielded results


The Virginian-Pilot

NORFOLK, Va. — Firefighters working for the Navy in Hampton Roads say a manpower shortage is forcing them to work mandatory overtime that often means shifts of 72 or 96 hours straight with just a 24-hour break.

Local union leaders say their members are suffering under exhausting schedules, while complaints to their civilian and Navy bosses have not yielded results.

"It's just about as bad as I've seen it, and I've been doing this a long time," said Charles Ruby, a government firefighter for 22 years - 15 as a civilian and seven as an active-duty sailor before that. Ruby worked at Oceana Naval Air Station for 12 years and is now a vice president of the Hampton Roads branch of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Omarr Dickens, a former volunteer firefighter who joined the local Navy force six years ago, has had enough. Dickens starts next month as a federal firefighter in San Diego - in part, he said, because conditions here have become untenable.

"I am definitely fed up with everything going on here," Dickens said. "The biggest issue really is that we are short-staffed - and the long hours. It's not good for the body, not good for the mind."

Navy officials downplayed the seriousness of the burden on local firefighters.

"The Navy does not agree that morale is low but understands employee concerns about working overtime," said Jim Moir, a spokesman for Navy Region Mid-Atlantic, in response to questions. He said the Navy is working diligently to recruit qualified firefighters.

At headquarters in Washington, spokeswoman Wendy Snyder said the Navy Installations Command had authorized a higher rate of hiring to overcome attrition.

"There are steps already under way in both the recruitment and selection process to fill vacancies," Snyder said. "Region fire chiefs and HR offices have initiated the process to fill all vacant fire and emergency service positions, and we have developed an enterprise-wide strategy to priority-fill fire and emergency services positions across the Navy."

The Navy said there are 30 vacancies on what is supposed to be a civilian force of 349 in Hampton Roads, but union representatives said there are between 40 and 60 unfilled slots.

Union representatives say they've been pushing management for years to change the scheduling system to respond to understaffing. But they say it means negotiating schedule changes separate from the rest of the labor contract and that local management has refused.

The local force is on a schedule of 24 hours on, 24 hours off, with a three-day break once every two weeks. Firefighters say that gets old quickly when they're working several overtime shifts a month.

Instead, union officials have asked management to consider a schedule of 48 hours on, 72 off. That way, even if someone picks up an extra shift, he still gets time off between shifts.

Kevin Jurnigan, a vice president at the firefighters union's Portsmouth District, said the Washington region switched over to the 48/72 rotation in 2013, and overtime costs and sick leave were drastically reduced.

According to data shared with The Virginian-Pilot, overtime costs in the first and second quarters of 2013 dropped 67.7 percent from the same period in 2012, while sick/family/emergency leave was reduced 39 percent after the district switched the scheduling.

Greg Russell, a former union president in Washington, said that before they tried it, just under 70 percent of the district's firefighters were in support of moving to a 48/72 schedule. After the six-month pilot program, 90 percent were in favor, said Russell, who used to work at Oceana.

"I could remember my days at Oceana, staring out at the airfield waiting for a plane to come in, and I was just beat," he said. If he wanted to spend time with his family or get sleep while holding down another part-time job, he was forced to take a sick day.

Jurnigan said that has only gotten worse.

"Right now, we spend more time at work than we do with our families," he said. "I probably worked 600 hours of overtime this year."

"It's just bad when my little girl calls crying and says, 'When are you coming home, Daddy,' and my little boy says 'Daddy, how much longer is this going to last?' " he added.

Not all the members want less overtime, acknowledged Robert Tignor, a captain at the Oceana fire house. There's a small minority, he said, who welcome as much extra pay as they can get.

But Jurnigan and others said there's a concern that firefighters are being stretched, and this could eventually affect their ability to do their work. He and others said they've been tasked with 120-hour shifts on more than one occasion in the past year - sometimes followed by a 24-hour break and then another 72-hour shift.

"We are getting physically and mentally burnt out," he said. "We try not to let it affect us, but eventually overtime does wear on us."

Navy officials said a change in scheduling should be negotiated at the collective bargaining table. The last labor agreement was signed in 2011. Talks for a new contract are slated to begin later this year.

But union officers say there's no reason the Navy can't consider changes sooner.

A local union letter to regional Fire Chief Doug Beasley in May urged him to meet with them to change the schedule. The letter cited clauses in the contract stating that the employer will duly consider union requests for scheduling changes.

Jurnigan said Beasley declined. A request for an interview with Beasley was declined as well.

The issue reached critical mass in late July when Harold Schaitberger, the union's national president, sent a letter to the deputy commander of the Navy Installations Command. It said the slow rate of hiring replacement firefighters is affecting departments across the Navy, but "in particular in the Mid-Atlantic Norfolk region."

In Hampton Roads, the "vacant fire fighter positions have doubled since 2014 and currently exceed 40 unfilled positions," Schaitberger wrote. "These vacancies overstress the fire fighter and lead to excessive costs to the Navy."

Tignor said he's not surprised that firefighters are going elsewhere.

"People are tired," he said. "They are leaving. I've never seen it this bad."

Copyright 2015 The Virginian-Pilot
All Rights Reserved

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