Your Views: Fully fund our firefighters

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To the editor:

I am the president of the Alexandria Fire Fighters Local 2141 and am writing this letter on behalf of more than 255 active and retired members of the Alexandria Fire Department.

Local 2141 members understand that budget dollars are finite. There are many different competing interests and council must make decisions based on the best interests of the citizens. This forces council members to prioritize between competing interests that are all important and valued.

That said, we believe the safety of the citizens and providing them with a safe city in which to reside must be the highest priority of city council.

We urge your support on two critical public safety issues. Both are within the Alexandria Fire Department, and we believe both can be corrected in the budget. They are: compensation and finally meeting the federal standard of manning all Alexandria Fire engines with four firefighters rather than three.

Alexandria Fire and EMS personnel remain behind all other local jurisdictions in compensation when salary has been normalized for hours worked. In other words, the firefighters and paramedics in Alexandria work a 56-hour week. Not all fire departments in the Northern Virginia and D.C. region work a 56-hour week – many work far less. When salaries are adjusted for hours worked, Alexandria is the lowest paid department in this region.

The Alexandria Fire Department has the lowest starting salary of all nearby localities, including Loudoun, Prince William, Fairfax and Arlington counties. The next lowest, Arlington, will be compensated more than $6,500 higher than Alexandria firefighters and paramedics in fiscal year 2020. When looking at the average starting salary across all the localities, Alexandria will be more than 14 percent lower than that average. Our poor recruitment and retention reflect the importance of fair compensation. The Alexandria Fire Department loses a significant portion of our candidates in each class and during the recruitment process because they opt to work for other, better paying departments.

In the last three years, we have lost an average of 6.5 firefighters and paramedics to other departments. Since July 1, 2018, we have lost three firefighters to neighboring jurisdictions and a total of 12 firefighters and paramedics overall.

It takes years to hone the crafts of firefighting and paramedicine, not to mention learn the ins and outs of the city we serve. We cannot continue to lose highly qualified and well-trained firefighters and paramedics.

Council needs to request that the city manager present a budget in November 2019 that compensates our fire and EMS personnel 100 percent of the average of the region.

In addition, federal studies have proven that four firefighters on engines is the safest, most efficient staffing model. There is no excuse for Alexandria to not meet the federal standard for optimum fire suppression staffing. It is a matter of life and death.

We can achieve this minimum standard in the Alexandria Fire Department with a SAFER grant. I am writing to implore you to accept and fund nine firefighter SAFER grants in FY20.

-Megan Ellzy, president, Alexandria Fire Fighters Inc. Local 2141

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