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Fairfax County Fire and Rescue reorganizes EMS services in response to staff vacancies

Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department (file photo)

The Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department is working on ways to improve service by reorganizing units and tackling recruitment and staffing challenges.

The changes were discussed at a Fairfax County Board of Supervisors’ safety and security committee meeting on Tuesday (Nov. 28).

The FCFRD is focused on using data to inform changes to operations, guiding how and when medics are converted to ambulances and where units are located, department officials told the committee.

According to a presentation delivered by Fairfax County Fire Chief John Butler and Operations Chief Dan Shaw, the department reorganized and reassessed its emergency medical services delivery between 2021 and 2022.

In January 2022, eight advanced life support units were converted to basic life support units. The following month, four more advanced life support units were converted.

The FCFRD has also studied ways to improve its EMS dispatch protocol and overall service delivery and deployment. In September, for example, the department implemented a new emergency medical protocol to ensure needs are properly understood as resources are dispatched to handle emergencies.

In January, the department plans to convert another eight advance life support units to basic life support. A paramedic will remain at each fire station.

The department also plans to introduce a new EMS specialist position that can offer a higher skill set and bring more advanced intervention and equipment to the incident. Shaw said the position is a big moment for the fire department.

“This allows the opportunity to employ a paramedic and deliver a higher level of service,” Shaw said.

Still, a national shortage of paramedics is a challenge due to a notable decrease in people pursuing public safety professions overall, officials said. To maintain its minimum staffing of 363 personnel, the FCFRD relies heavily on mandatory overtime.

The department has around 100 vacancies, according to FCFRD spokesperson Ashley Hildebrandt.

“While we are not immune to the recruitment challenges being experienced nationwide throughout the fire service, our department has worked, and continues to work, diligently to increase recruitment efforts to ensure the residents of Fairfax County continue to receive the high quality services the department is known for,” Hildebrandt said.

Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity said he continues to be concerned by the drop in the number of paramedics.

“Fairfax County needs to do better than the national trend and the national average,” he said.

The fire and rescue department is currently in the midst of analyzing its staffing model and hours of overtime recorded by personnel.

At the meeting, Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay countered Herrity’s assertion that the county needs to step up its efforts to address staffing challenges by stressing that the county and its public safety agencies are investing time and resources to tackle the issue.

“It is disgraceful to the people who are killing themselves recruiting people,” McKay said, adding that he’s “tired of this nonsense.”

McKay said repeating incorrect statistics about the number of vacancies — particularly in the police department — works against the county’s goal of recruiting more people and establishing the progress that has been made.

After reporting 206 vacancies in early April, the Fairfax County Police Department welcomed over 100 new trainees across two academy classes this year. A cohort of 56 recruits this spring was trumpeted as the FCPD Academy’s largest class in almost 10 years, and it was followed in the summer by an even bigger session with 59 people.

According to McKay, the FCPD’s vacancy rate is now closer to 127 positions.

The county’s Department of Public Safety Communications, which operates the 911 center, has also chipped away at its vacancies to the point where the department anticipated reducing required overtime this fall.

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