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Opinion/Editorial: Firefighter funds ease city woes

Opinion/Editorial: Firefighter funds ease city woes

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First of two parts.

Charlottesville and Albemarle each has been struggling with staffing shortages for its fire and rescue department. But the personal drama seems to be centered in Charlottesville, where disputes deteriorated into name-calling.

All of which is why federal money to relieve those shortages is more than welcome.

U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine recently announced that Charlottesville would receive $3.5 million through a grant program called Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response.

Albemarle would get $1.9 million.

Local matches usually are needed in order to pull in these grants, but that requirement was waived this year due COVID.

In Charlottesville, the money will go toward hiring 15 additional firefighters over three years. According to interim Fire Chief Emily Pelliccia, the additions will allow the city to “maintain sufficient staffing on fire apparatus,” provide “adequate staffing” on medical transport units, and reduce the overtime — and therefore “the fatigue and stress on our personnel” — currently necessary to meet these needs.

But even after this welcome announcement, disputes continued in the city over who was responsible for bringing in the grant, how many firefighters had been requested from Charlottesville’s own local budget, and when those firefighters might — or might not — have been provided.

The total number of firefighters requested ranges from nine, to 12, to 15; and the method of acquiring them ranges from a phased-in approach to a mass hire, depending on who is telling the story.

To take just one small piece of the dispute:

Then-City Manager Tarron Richardson said he had envisioned adding three firefighters per year starting mid-2021 — if money were available once budgets were stabilized after COVID impacts. He said he asked the fire chief to accommodate that possibility or else find the money from some other source.

Former Fire Chief Andrew Baxter says that conversation never happened. Instead, what he remembers is that Mr. Richardson asked him to figure out how to manage with cuts to the department. “What would be the option for the coverage if you had to get rid of an engine company?” the city manager asked, according to a recording of the conversation, later adding that he didn’t think such a loss would hurt coverage.

The “what-if” question was of course highly speculative and not a guarantee of “what would” happen. But it probably negatively influenced Mr. Baxter’s take on the city manager’s assessment of staffing issues.

One reading of the situation is that Mr. Baxter’s main concern was gaining more staff to prevent overtime, while Mr. Richardson’s was reining in overtime, by reorganizing or cutting staff, until added staff could be funded.

Mr. Baxter, citing a string of disputes with the city manager, resigned last summer.

Mr. Richardson, citing stress from dealing with the pandemic and the current round of racial unrest, resigned last month.

And after all that, the city will receive enough money to hire 15 new firefighters — sorely needed, according to Mr. Baxter, to maintain safe staffing levels without subjecting personnel to unsafe levels of overtime.

Ms. Pelliccia concurs. “This additional staffing will allow the department to be less reliant on overtime to meet the current system demands, which should reduce department expenses as well as the fatigue and stress on our personnel, which is a real problem right now.”

The federal grant not only solves the staffing problem, but also eliminates the concern that this contentious issue might survive the departures of the two main combatants and continue to plague Charlottesville. It therefore is doubly to be welcomed.

Tomorrow: Albemarle County

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