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Firefighter policy generates controversy in Spotsylvania

MORE: Read more Spotsylvania County news

Spotsylvania County recently notified 36 of its firefighters that they would be working more hours for the same paycheck.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone took the news well.

“They’re basically being asked to work 33 percent more hours for the same amount of money,” said Kenneth Crist, a former firefighter/paramedic in the county who says he is an honorary member of the Spotsylvania Career Firefighters Association.

The firefighters’ work hours increased from 40 to 53 per week, effective last Monday—for a total of 676 additional hours annually.

But they won’t be making more money, as the county reduced their hourly wages so that their take-home pay will go unchanged. In fact, the lower hourly earnings mean they will make less working overtime, which pays time-and-a-half.

The firefighters received a memo—which the county had them sign—about the new schedule late last month.

Fire Chief Monty Willaford defended the measure, saying it puts the county’s firefighters on a level playing field and is a more efficient use of taxpayer money.

From 2011 through 2013, he noted, Spotsylvania moved 114 firefighters to the lengthier schedule without increasing their salaries.

That left a minority of firefighters working 40 hours a week.

“So those positions were not as efficient as far as covering as many hours, and there was a pay disparity between them and the other 114,” said Willaford, who started as fire chief Dec. 30 and also served as Spotsylvania’s deputy fire chief from November 2010 until March 2012.

Overtime kicked in earlier for firefighters with the lighter schedule.

They also received higher hourly wages, resulting in a more generous overtime rate. For a firefighter making $39,408, the difference was almost $7 an hour.

“We just felt it was the right thing, the ethical thing to do,” Willaford said of the new schedule.

Crist, the former Spotsylvania firefighter who still lives in the county, acknowledged that the change “definitely brings fairness and parity to the department.”

He added: “What it doesn’t bring is adequate compensation in general.”

Federal law allows firefighters to work up to 53 hours a week before they start receiving time-and-a-half.

Overtime for firefighters is a common issue in localities, and Spotsylvania is no exception.

In fiscal years 2012 and 2013, the county spent a total of about $2.7 million in overtime for firefighters. And for the current fiscal year, Spotsylvania is on pace to overspend the Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management’s $859,581 overtime budget by $233,573.

The recent schedule change will reduce overtime expenses, but it’s unclear by how much.

The 36 affected firefighters previously worked three shifts per week, from 4:40 a.m. until 6 p.m. They’re now working that same shift two days a week, in addition to a 26-hour and 20-minute shift from 4:40 a.m. one day until 7 a.m. the next day.

Willaford said he kept the number of shifts at three per week based on feedback from some of the firefighters. The additional hours are at night, he noted, and could involve a lot of downtime such as sleep.

But Crist criticized the schedule for requiring some firefighters to work a 13-hour day followed by a 26-hour shift starting early the next day.

Efforts to reach the president of the Spotsylvania Career Firefighters Association were unsuccessful. Crist, a former vice president of the association, noted that the county prohibits its firefighters from speaking with The Free Lance–Star.

Willaford said some firefighters initially volunteered to work the lengthier schedule when the “enhanced staffing program” was introduced in 2011. While the schedule does require more hours on duty, it also typically allows for more consecutive days off.

For the past two years, every station has been continuously staffed by career and volunteer personnel thanks to additional hires and the expanded schedule, Willaford said.

He noted that firefighters saved a woman from a burning home last Monday, the first day of the most recent schedule change. “It doesn’t get any better than that,” he said.

Supervisor Paul Trampe said the additional hours are necessary to keep all stations staffed around the clock. “I understand their complaint, but I think we’re just in a position where we have to do this,” he said.

He said the supervisors would try to provide raises for the fiscal year that begins July 1, but that he couldn’t promise anything at this point.

Billy Shelton, executive director of the Virginia Department of Fire Programs, said most localities in Virginia require firefighters to work an average of more than 50 hours per week. In fact, Stafford County firefighters have been working an average of 56 hours a week for the last 15 or 20 years, he said.

“Spotsylvania is growing; Stafford is growing,” Shelton said. “As you grow, you’ve got to look at that public safety parameter and say, ‘How can I provide the best protection?’”

Localities elsewhere have also increased firefighter schedules to reduce overtime.

In Baltimore, firefighters last year had their average weekly hours increased from 42 to 47.5 in a collective bargaining agreement, according to The Baltimore Sun. The city agreed to provide a 16.5 percent pay raise in exchange for the longer hours.

Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402