Frederick County fire officials warn of staffing shortages

By Joe Beck

The Frederick County Department of Fire and Rescue is facing a severe shortage of career firefighters that requires the agency to rethink current practices for workforce recruitment and retention, Chief Dennis Linaburg said Monday.

Linaburg told a meeting of the Board of Supervisors’ Public Safety Committee that larger departments are recruiting 13 of its 64 rank and file employees. The prospect of losing 13 firefighters comes after the earlier loss of 21 employees since 2008.

“Our turnover rate will be in excess of 52 percent of our entire operational staff” in the last five years, Linaburg said in a written statement.

Linaburg blamed increased recruitment competition from the more populous and wealthier counties closer to Washington, D.C., a decline in the number and quality of recruits applying to Frederick County and his department’s starting pay and benefits, which he called “the lowest in the area.”

Departments in Fauquier, Prince William, Loudon and Fairfax counties are offering much better pay and benefits that are difficult for Frederick County’s most qualified and experienced firefighters to resist, Linaburg said.

“We are having huge difficulty competing with other jurisdictions,” Linaburg told the committee.

Linaburg said his department has been able to replace those who have left in recent years, but now it is running into trouble finding enough high quality recruits to replace those who leave.

He cited as examples two recent rounds of hiring, one of which produced two firefighters with “very little experience” who met only the minimum qualifications for the position.

In the second round of hiring, 21 of 45 registered applicants showed up for written and physical tests. Of those, five flunked the written test, one failed physical agility and three others were rejected after department officials reviewed their applications. Linaburg called it “very doubtful” that the current round of hiring will yield enough candidates to fill four current vacancies.

Such results, Linaburg said, will force department leaders to shift firefighters from some stations to others. Doing so will leave some stations without guaranteed staffing and cause a delay in response times.

Deputy Chief William Bowmaster warned that situations could arise in which some stations will lack experienced personnel to handle life and death emergencies.

“Putting rookie providers with rookie providers could be catastrophic for house fires or people getting ready to die,” Bowmaster said.

Scheduling experienced firefighters for more overtime could be another option in coping with staffing shortages, although it would require spending more money, Linaburg said.

Linaburg said state regulations spelling out specific certifications and education requirements make it harder to find new recruits who can fill vacancies quickly. He suggested a regional academy similar to the one in Middletown used by law enforcement agencies could speed the hiring process and identify qualified recruits.

“If we can’t replace the staff in a reasonable amount of time, we may have to change the way we do business,” Linaburg said.

The committee members responded to Linaburg and Bowmaster with a request that they submit a plan in two weeks elaborating on some or all of the possible solutions to the staffing problem.

The board tentatively agreed to meet again on July 2 to review the department’s recruitment and retention proposals.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com