October 20, 2020
Good evening, Chair Randall and members of the Board.
My name is Josh Townsend – I’m a voter, taxpayer and neighbor residing in Ashburn Village. I am also a Volunteer firefighter, EMT, and the President of Ashburn Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department. I take great pride in being a neighbor who is always ready to help my neighbors, alongside hundreds of other dedicated volunteers in Ashburn and in other neighboring stations in Sterling, Leesburg, Arcola, Purcellville and other locations across the County.
It has been established, thanks to a 2018 study requested by Supervisor Letourneau, that Loudoun’s Volunteer Fire and Rescue companies deliver over $27.6m of value to our taxpayers per year. Loudoun County has a proud history of providing the community with fire suppression and emergency medical services through the Loudoun County COMBINED Fire Rescue System. Loudoun County’s combined system is nationally regarded as a model to uphold. Unfortunately, many in the volunteer departments fear that the proud tradition we helped to build is now being dismantled.
In November 2019, the Board of Supervisors approved a last-minute change to convert all LCFR career firefighters to a 24-hour shift schedule when adopting classification and compensation improvements for county employees (note: see letter sent to Supervisors Randall, Myer, and Buona prior to the vote).
Before I go further, let me be clear that I, as well as the volunteer community, cheered the increased pay and benefits for our career counterparts. Our working relationship with the career women and men on the front lines is strong.
But about that 24-hour shift directive…. The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, Loudoun County Department of Fire Rescue, and other County leadership did not introduce, discuss, or otherwise seek input on the significant change’s impact to the Combined System’s volunteers – who nearly outnumber career staff by 2:1 – with the defined governance structure codified in Ordinance Chapter 258.
The vote occurred without any apparent analysis of the impact to the volunteer contingent of the Combined Fire and Rescue System, including recruitment and retention of volunteers, ancillary costs to the system and taxpayers, or impact to the morale of your constituents who volunteer their time to serve the community.
Loudoun County Fire Rescue leadership communicated with career staff before, during and after the 24-hour directive, while communication with the volunteer leadership and membership has been insufficient. The System’s governance structure put in place by the Board of Supervisors has been ignored in this matter – a disturbing trend already seen in other system matters from changes to the Chain of Command, to forcing a LOSAP software system with “fundamental product, process, and support flaws” on to the Volunteers despite vigorous protest from Volunteer leadership within the System’s governance structure. This does not align with the ‘Teamwork – Integrity – Professionalism – Service’ values of the system.
The change to the shift schedule places at least 50 extra paid personnel on duty each night despite the fact that volunteers are already freely serving between 1800 – 0600 every night. LCFR leadership is still asking themselves, “where will these personnel be assigned/how will they be utilized?”
As such, we, as both taxpayers and Volunteers are concerned that Career firefighters may be staffed at volunteer-staffed stations at night, even though there will be volunteers already on duty – Ashburn alone has a minimum of 14 volunteers on duty nightly across two stations and often over 20 firefighters and EMTs per shift. This decision could waste taxpayer dollars by paying for these extra career firefighters to sleep – to the tune of around $5m per year – while volunteers are already providing essential, front-line coverage to our neighbors across Loudoun County.
Furthermore, Volunteer system members share the concern that the addition of career staff during volunteer shifts could also force volunteers to second-tier or supplemental staffing, thus eliminating the value we provide to the community. This is a waste considering that volunteers are certified at the same local, state and national levels as our career counterparts.
This change in staffing may cause many volunteers to reconsider the time they invest as their status in the system, their ability to directly serve our neighbors, and the number of calls they can respond to (which is essential for maintaining skills) are eroded by this change. Such changes to career staffing models in neighboring combination fire rescue systems (Fairfax, Prince Georges, Prince William, and Montgomery County) have led to the loss of their volunteers.
What happens if we lose our volunteers?
A reduction or loss of the volunteer contingent of the Combined System may effectively eliminate emergency/surge staffing capabilities within the System by displacing highly trained volunteers who live and work in Loudoun County, and instead relying only on daily career staffing and the availability of the 74% of career firefighters who reside outside of the County (as far away as Sherburne, NY and Virginia Beach) to respond in times of local, regional or national crisis.
We lose diversity within Fire Rescue. Because our volunteers are our neighbors and your constituents, our diversity and inclusion is far greater than what the County has been able to achieve in career Fire Rescue hiring.
Taxpayers pay more – hundreds of dollars more per year in property taxes for the average Ashburn homeowner – if the value of the volunteers is needlessly lost.
We lose community. We believe that when neighbors help neighbors, our community becomes stronger, safer, more inclusive, more… home.
What do we want?
Volunteers do not want simple lip-service thanking us for our service. We want to serve. In our community. We want to lead. In our community.
We ask that the Board of Supervisors instruct the System Chief to build a workgroup of volunteers and career staff to benchmark successful combined staffing practices of other jurisdictions, and to analyze the potential impacts of those practices against the volunteer aspect of our Combination System, and report back to the Board in 120 days.
We also ask that the Board of Supervisors direct the County Administrator and System Fire Chief to delay the implementation of 24-hour staffing until such report is rendered and the governance structure defined in Ordinance 258 has agreed upon appropriate implementation of system changes.
Finally, we ask that the Board direct the County Administrator and the System Fire Chief to immediately study, identify, and implement methods and programs of growing and strengthening the volunteer component of our Combined Fire Rescue System with the collaborative input of the Combined System’s governance structure.
The return on investment and many benefits offered by the volunteers in Loudoun County are too great to ignore and too valuable to let slip quietly away.
Thank you for your attention. I’m happy to answer any questions that you might have at this time.