Arlington Co. raising alarms over fire department overtime

Every year, the Arlington County Fire Department plans to spend millions of dollars on overtime pay, but in recent years the county has had to spend millions beyond that anticipated figure.

While the department still manages to stay in its budget, overtime costs are eating into other areas, like training. The county is trying to figure out where the problems lie.

An audit conducted by the county provided some answers.

Part of the problem is administrative. The audit found fault with the payroll system and how overtime is tracked. But it goes beyond that.

Staffing is a problem for the fire department, as it has been for the police department in Arlington as well.

Every year the department trains around 20-24 new firefighters — at significant expense — while every year an even greater number of firefighters leave the department.

Some of the reasons for the departures are stress and the long commutes — one to two hours in some cases — that firefighters make. But even after the county hiked the pay of police and fire last year, there’s concern that it’s not enough to keep firefighters from taking jobs in other counties.

Management also expressed concern that the overtime being worked could be behind an increase in on-the-job injuries, but the audit found it’s hard to make that determination right now.

However, with firefighters using so much sick leave — which also leads to more overtime for those who fill in — there’s some concern that sick leave is being used to allow firefighters to catch up on rest they’re not getting.

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