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‘We’re at a breaking point': Va. FD faces burned-out firefighters, retention struggles

Virginia Beach Fire Chief Ken Pravetz is asking the city for 140 more firefighters after spending $3.7M in overtime


Firefighters responded to a fire in the 600 block of Pheasant Run in Virginia Beach, Virginia, on April 18, 2024.

Billy Schuerman / The Virginian-Pilot

By Stacy Parker
The Virginian-Pilot

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — An increase in overtime shifts has led to burnout for Virginia Beach firefighters, costing $3.7 million last fiscal year, all the while more employees are leaving the department.

Fire Chief Ken Pravetz shared the struggle with the City Council last month. He requested 140 new full-time positions divided into two tiers including an initial immediate need of 60 positions for operations and training. The salaries for all 60 positions would cost approximately $5 million a year, according to a February fire staffing assessment.

“We cannot continue to force our employees to work these unreasonable hours,” Pravetz said at the April 2 meeting. “We’re at a breaking point.”

City Manager Patrick Duhaney has proposed adding 17 new firefighter recruits — an increase of $1.7 million from the previous year — in the fiscal year 2025 budget. But after hearing from Pravetz and seeing the assessment, Mayor Bobby Dyer said Wednesday the number will be increased to a total of 30 firefighter positions in the new budget and more could be added at a later date.

Without a significant amount of new full-time positions, some of Virginia Beach’s 21 fire stations will not be available to respond to emergencies, according to the city’s Office of Performance and Accountability assessment.

[RELATED: ‘Anything would be an improvement’: How FDs can move the needle on staffing challenges]

Virginia Beach uses voluntary and mandatory overtime to keep 130 firefighters working on any given day, which is a standard based on the city’s population. Normal shifts are 24 hours. But in recent years, the fire department has seen more resignations and retirements and an increasing amount of overtime hours worked.

A total of 33 uniformed staff resigned from the department between fiscal year 2021 and 2023, which was 10 more than the previous three years combined, according to the staffing report. Overtime costs have more than tripled over the last three years and are expected to top out at $4.6 million in fiscal year 2024.

Hiring more firefighters, compared to paying time-and-a-half for overtime, will ultimately save money, according to an October report sent by Pravetz to the city manager. Pravetz estimated hiring 35 firefighter recruits would save roughly a million dollars.

One of the issues the department is facing is the transition to a younger workforce with the retirement of seasoned employees. It has led to mandatory overtime for the limited pool of firefighters who have experience driving apparatus.

Also, there are not enough employees to cover shifts when people take vacation or sick leave, Pravetz said.

The fire department’s $80 million-plus budget is supported predominately by the General Fund. Federal and state aid cover roughly $3.4 million. The city employs 553 fire personnel including 375 firefighters, according to the department’s 2023 annual report.

“It’s not enough,” Pravetz told the council during his departmental budget presentation April 2. “Staffing our apparatus has become a major challenge.”

The City Council is poised to add more funding than originally proposed in the fiscal year 2025 budget to hire new firefighters.

But the council’s recent rejection of collective bargaining for city employees — a vote that was prompted by fire department employees who wanted to negotiate better wages and working conditions — could make the recruitment process more challenging.

The city plans to conduct a market salary survey to see where Virginia Beach lands in terms of employee pay and enhance existing employee committees to require communication with the City Council, Dyer has said.

“Maybe we’ll see some positive impact,” Pravetz said by phone Friday. “If we stay status quo, people may look other places.”

The fire chief noted in the October report to the city manager that the department recently allowed employees to work up to 72 hours straight to offset the growing demand for mandatory overtime. He said the increased workload is “not sustainable.”

“If no one is coming to relieve you, you’re getting forced to stay,” Pravetz said in an interview. “I’m just concerned about my firefighters’ health and well-being.”

From August 2022 to September 2023, 14 fire department employees worked more than 1,000 overtime hours. One logged more than 2,300 hours.

The long shifts are taking a toll. A fire department survey found that 58.9% of employees strongly agree they have missed important family or personal events due to overtime requirements. And 34% strongly agreed that working an increased number of overtime hours has negatively affected their work-life balance.

“As far as retention and the health and safety of the firefighters, 48-hour shifts are bad enough, but 72-hour shifts are absolutely unacceptable,” said Councilwoman Barbara Henley at a meeting April 23. “And this isn’t just being on-call; this is being on the job.”

Additional funding for the fire department and a host of other last-minute budget add-ons will be announced at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. A vote to adopt the final budget will held on May 14.

©2024 The Virginian-Pilot.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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