RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - The Richmond Fire Department is experiencing a staffing shortage so severe that some are calling it one of the worst in the city’s history.
Last month, for the first time in memory, Richmond Fire Chief Melvin Carter began instituting mandatory overtime for crew members in the field.
NBC12 uncovered financial data showing the fire department has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars more on overtime this year, compared to previous years. Sources tell NBC12 the fire department hasn’t hired enough new recruits. Carter said the pandemic and social unrest caused a delay in hiring and a spike in overtime.
Richmond Fire is dealing with about 24 recurring vacancies every day, according to Carter. Twenty of those positions need to be replaced across three shifts that span multiple days, by crew members working overtime and getting paid time-and-a-half. Carter also maintains that when he took on his role as chief in 2017, there were 33 vacancies.
“This year will set records. I can almost guarantee it,” said Keith Andes, in regards to the climbing amount of overtime.
Andes is a former firefighter and president of the Richmond Firefighter’s Association. He says firefighters are feeling burnout.
“We’re having people working 72 hours straight,” said Andes. “Where does that leave you with childcare, and if their parents or other loved ones can’t help (Richmond firefighters) out, it puts them in a bind.”
Through May 3 in the fiscal year 2021, which runs from July of 2020 through July of 2021, the Richmond Fire Department is on track to pay over $365,000 more in overtime compared to 2020. The total is also running higher than in 2019.
Richmond Fire Department Overtime Spending
- 2019 - $2,254,463 (July of 2018 – July of 2019)
- 2020 - $2,232,727 (July of 2019 – July of 2020)
- 2021 - $2,598,524 (July of 2020 – May 3 of 2021)
Carter says civil unrest, retirements, and call-outs because of COVID-19 have added to the climbing number of vacant positions.
“We (knew) that we would have these vacancies coming into 2020,” said Carter. “What we didn’t know is that a pandemic would land… When our members went out on COVID leave, we had to backfill. In some cases, it was one, two, three, five, 10 (members calling out).”
Carter also said a new recruit class couldn’t be trained during the pandemic.
At times, stations throughout Richmond have been running with three firefighters on a truck, instead of the usual four, which some argue is a safety issue.
“Occasionally that happens, but since we implemented the mandatory overtime, it hasn’t happened,” said Carter. After NBC12′s inquiry, Richmond Fire responded that a new recruit class was still ‘pending approval.’ A previous attempt for a class in January was denied by the city, according to Carter.
Three days before NBC12′s interview with Carter, Richmond Fire posted for an ad for a new recruit class.
“Anyone who wants to be a Richmond firefighter, we are hiring,” said Carter.
Carter also said another recruit class for firefighters who already have experience is in the works, as well. But none of those trainees will be able to hit the ground for at least eight to 14 months. That means the overtime will continue to mount.
Public safety advocates say low wages in Richmond for firefighters and police, compared to the counties, is not helping Richmond keep experienced members.
“Why not go… where you can have the best opportunity,” said Andes. “And I don’t know if those opportunities are still here in the city of Richmond.”
For example, Henrico just boosted its starting pay for firefighters to over $51,000. Richmond’s starting salary is $43,000.
Richmond has an incremental “step” pay plan for public safety members. But steps or years where firefighters would be due a raise, have been frozen for half of the pay plan’s existence, since it was implemented, according to Andes.
Last month, Richmond City Council and the mayor shot down a public safety pay increase supported by fire and police members that would have sped up a 25-year plan to 20 years, getting firefighters to their top pay faster.
The city ultimately approved a less expensive, two-step pay raise instead.
“I believe Richmond firefighters deserve to get a higher pay. As I’ve told my members, I support their pay plan,” said Carter. “But it needs to be supported and vetted.”
Richmond firefighters expressed frustration at a May 24 Richmond City Council meeting, saying their budget pitch had been submitted in well enough time to be reviewed. The city council supported paying for another salary study after the previous one was completed in 2018.
Richmond Police have also voiced concern over unfair wages and staff departures. NBC12 found RPD has had a 47 percent increase of officers leaving in 2020, compared to the year before.
Copyright 2021 WWBT. All rights reserved.