Written by RJ Best, Prince William County Professional Firefighter
A Volunteer’s Journey
The year is 2010, and the place is a night shift at a local police dispatch center. An individual interested in becoming a Volunteer EMT looks up Prince William County’s Volunteer Fire & Rescue website and fills out a contact form. About an hour later – a member of the county Volunteer Recruitment & Retention committee calls the individual and a date is set for attendance to an orientation session the next week.
The individual is sold on becoming a volunteer and begins his training.
Fast forward two years, that individual has spent hundreds of hours training on how to deliver quality emergency services to anyone who needs help, on their own time, and on their own dime. Throughout those years, he has worked with hundreds of paid and volunteer providers to get certified and learn the role of an EMT. The individual is close to being able to deliver services independently, running his own ambulance crew. His first call on his own is a chest-pain patient, he arrives on scene, provides direction to his driver and recruit, and they get upstairs to the patient who is in desperate need of help.
The volunteer assesses the patient’s medical condition and history and provides treatment until an Advanced Life Support (ALS) unit arrives. The EMT briefs the incoming crew, another volunteer crew from the same department, explaining the patient’s presentation, history, and current symptoms. The EMT remains with the patient until he is loaded into the Ambulance.
On the drive back to the station, the EMT feels a sense of pride and ownership, those years of training, studying, and thousands of hours running duty with his fellow volunteers had paid off. He had delivered emergency care to someone who needed it. He was in this to help others, and he was able to do just that. There was no leaving now.
The Past Few Years
The story above is just one of thousands of individuals who made the decision to give back in Prince William. To give back in a way that many don’t or can’t. A way that changes the lives of those who choose that path, and those receiving care from them. That ability, and the ability of others to create their own story, is in danger of being lost. Over the last few years Prince William County Department of Fire & Rescue (DFR) leadership personnel have taken actions that have placed strain and obstruction to volunteerism.
For over 70 years, volunteer Fire & Rescue personnel have provided service to the residents and visitors in the county. This history of selfless dedication and experience across departments, and stations, has led Prince William County to be a leader among jurisdictions. 65% of all Firefighters in the US are volunteer. In Prince William, we used to have stronger numbers too. Since 2011, the number of active volunteers has dropped significantly, but not as much as in the last two months.
National emergency services volunteerism is down 12 percent since 2010 (NVFC). In Prince William, we’re down 29 percent (hours). In July of this year we lost 12 percent compared to the prior month alone.
There are many potential causes of the loss in staffing hours, but none are as clear as the new 56-Hour Work Week & Flex staffing plan. In July of 2019, the acting System Chief made a drastic shift in how emergency units are staffed (who rides, where, and when). The change was to implement a new shift schedule placing paid personnel on historically volunteer-staffed units. This meant that even if volunteers were present, paid staff would be there too. – Why does this matter? – If a volunteer sacrifices time with family, friends, and other priorities, that individual does so because they are needed. If a volunteer knows that paid staff are there to deliver service, the argument on why you’re missing Thanksgiving is harder to make.
DFR leadership lied to the board of county supervisors and said they had a serious retention problem that required immediate action. A review of the 2018 Public Safety Recruitment & Retention report showed that Recruitment and Retention was medial among area departments. They used that excuse to remove the need for volunteers to staff units. After all, more paid staff means more union dues and when supervisors take union money, that means more members.
Since July, some units have been staffed with duplicate personnel, this change has affected volunteer organizations differently. In two of the largest in the county, one department saw a significant drop in member attendance, the other remains steady. One thing is very clear, the number of hours volunteers spend on emergency units is dwindling, and since July, that graph looks extremely dismal.
Stations that have large paid and volunteer presence, are seriously overcrowded during volunteer hours, and service gaps have been created during non-volunteer hours. The highest call type in the county (a request for ALS EMS service), hasn’t changed, but the amount of available EMS units has. During the day, ALS units are constantly moved around the county to adjust for gaps in coverage. Previously staffed BLS units are no longer staffed during the day, meaning ALS units are transporting non-ALS patients.
What This Change Costs
- Volunteers: in 2011, the county had 150,000 hours’ worth of certified, free, volunteer emergency services labor. By 2018, that had dropped by 50,000 hours (33%). 2019 is expected to drop another 40,000 hours if the bleeding isn’t stopped. In a county which had hundreds of volunteers, spending hundreds of thousands of hours delivering service, one has to wonder why the DFR has been allowed to continue to undermine volunteerism? Especially when area counties are doing whatever they can to keep us.
- Taxpayer Dollars: An average volunteer saves the county $43/hour in base labor and benefits. Each engine staffed by volunteers for a 12-hour shift saves the county $1,500. A single volunteer, running a standard shift for a year, saves the county $43,000. In 2018, volunteers contributed 140,000 hours in operational staffing (not inclusive of admin or training time). We estimate the total value of $14.5M in savings to the county per year.
- Cost per Resident: PWC outspends the next highest county (Loudoun) by 160% in Fire & Rescue cost per resident. By 2025, PWC will outspend Fairfax County by 220% in cost per resident. This means that you as a taxpayer, have spent over twice as much as a resident in Fairfax County, for Fire & Rescue service.
What Can Be Done?
Volunteerism is declining in PWC, but it doesn’t have to. The PWC F&R budget is out of control, but it doesn’t have to be. From FY2012 to FY2015, PWC Fire & Rescue budget totals looked normal compared to area departments. Our cost per resident looked normal, and the number of hours that volunteers were serving were relatively stable. We can return PWC to a state of volunteer excellence, a beacon of how a jurisdiction should utilize volunteers to deliver services at a cost savings to the county. Here’s how:
- Stop wasting taxpayer dollars on unnecessary labor and remove duplicative personnel at volunteer stations. Place paid personnel in areas and at times when service is demanded, and on unit types that support that demand.
- Dedicate financial and labor resources to support volunteerism. If we spend even 10% of what we save by using volunteers per year, on recruiting and retaining them, we’ll save volunteerism. Further, PWC could increase those savings by over 40%.
- Hold Fire & Rescue Leadership and the County Executive accountable for underutilizing volunteers to support service demand that has led to millions of wasted taxpayer dollars.
Here is a link to a PWC Fire and Rescue System Leadership & Performance Analysis presentation.