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FairfaxPublic SafetyFire chief preaches collaboration to overcome obstacles

Fire chief preaches collaboration to overcome obstacles

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The Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department is preparing for the future by bolstering recruitment, building community partnerships and enhancing service in Tysons, Fire Chief John Butler told the McLean Citizens Association (MCA) in an online discussion Nov. 17 with Fairfax County Police Chief Kevin Davis.

“The future of public-safety [and] government is partnerships and collaboration,” Butler said. “Anyone who’s still dialed into silos, they’re behind the times.”

Department leaders soon will roll out a strategic plan for fiscal years 2023 through 2025, which will engage more actively with frontline personnel.

“We’re taking engagement and empowerment to new levels,” Butler said. “It’s not a handful of folks at headquarters creating the strategic plan. We’re going to push this down and decentralize.”


Butler, who served 21 years in the U.S. Marine Corps (including two combat tours), began his fire service in Howard County, Md., with his two brothers and worked his way up to fire chief there.

Fairfax County hired Butler to lead its Fire and Rescue Department in September 2018, succeeding former Chief Richard Bowers. The department has about 1,300 firefighters, 185 civilian employees and 300 operational volunteers who serve at 40 stations.

The department has responded to about 10 percent more calls this year than at the same point last year, but its budget remains flat, Butler said. With inflation driving up the cost of bread, milk and other supplies, officials also are striving to maintain the department’s financial sustainability, he said.

Fuel costs for the department’s apparatuses recently rose from $92,000 to $160,000 annually and a new apparatus that a short time ago would have cost (a still mind-boggling) $550,000 now costs $800,000, he said.

The department would like to implement “green” vehicles, but would have to start with the smaller ones, as such technology for fire engines and ladder trucks does not yet exist, he said.

The department is beefing up its presence in rapidly growing Tysons. It opened Scotts Run Fire Station 44 on the McLean/Tysons border in August and has moved its rescue squad there from McLean Fire Station to respond more efficiently to incidents along the Beltway and Dulles Toll Road corridors.

Officials in fiscal 2023 will ask for 12 new positions at the station to staff a fire engine there.

The department also will co-locate Tysons Fire Station 29, currently based on Spring Hill Road, to a new Fairfax Connector bus station on Jones Branch Drive. Design work is done, but the department needs more than $10 million for the project, Butler said.

As with county police, the Fire and Rescue Department is having staffing difficulties that require longer hours from personnel, the fire chief said. The department’s work week is 56 hours long and mandatory holdovers caused by staffing shortages challenge morale, said Butler, adding he also had received messages from disgruntled spouses.

The department usually gets 2,500 to 3,000 employment applications per year, but that figure now is down to about 1,600. Some young people also have no desire to work in any one place for 25 or 30 years, he said.

Fire and Rescue Department officials also are bracing for another spate of retirements in the next two or three years. Some departing personnel have stated they were leaving for reasons other than salary, including wanting to relocate or perhaps pursue another vocation, Butler said.

After addressing staffing issues, department officials hope to add specialized Emergency Medical Services, such as tele-medicine, and encourage the use of Pulse Point, an app that lets businesses register their automated external defibrillators.

“The thing about community risk reduction is it has to be a two-way street [for] both us, public safety, as well as the community,” the fire chief said.

For example, if the public learned how to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation, it would give those undergoing medical emergencies a better chance of survival while rescue crews were being dispatched, he said.

The department is working on a holistic community-risk-reduction plan to determine the three main priorities of various communities, which could differ widely by fire station, Butler said.

Community-risk-reduction measures center around five Es: education, engineering control (such as crosswalks and pedestrian safety), enforcement, economic incentives (and sometimes disincentives) and finally emergency response. A sixth “E” that likely will be on the county’s radar is equity of services provided, Butler said.

The department also will work Neighborhood and Community Services and the county’s Health Department to reach the same clientele. Fire and Rescue leaders also are interacting with other county agencies, such as the police department, to achieve economies of scale, the chief said.

Fire and Rescue officials also are preparing for the department’s re-accreditation starting early next year and will be going “all chips in” to ensure the physical, behavioral and mental wellness of its personnel.

About 12 percent of the Fire and Rescue Department’s personnel are female, which is triple the national average, Butler said. The chief is trying to develop the department’s talent pool and has urged county supervisors to hire their next fire chief from within the agency. Many personnel already demonstrate leadership skills, he said.

Butler was not worried about potential unionization of county employees, saying people on both sides of the table shared the same mission of serving the community.

“Collective bargaining doesn’t keep me up at night,” he said.

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