Fairbanks police and fire struggle with excessive overtime, burnout and turnover

Fairbanks’ Fire Station Headquarters. (City of Fairbanks photo)

 Short staffing is challenging public safety operations in Fairbanks. 

The city’s police, fire and dispatch leaders all report struggling to cover shifts and calls, resulting in excessive overtime, burn out, high turnover and younger, less-experienced staff.  

“I want you to imagine calling 911, saying someone is breaking into your house and dispatch telling you no one is available,” said Officer Andrew Wixon.

Wixon was among numerous Fairbanks Police Department officers who testified at a recent City Council meeting about the short staffing situation, saying it can threaten public safety.

Wixon said FPD is currently relying on overtime and is still only able to staff two officers on most shifts. He said it’s a stressful situation with little time off, and it’s causing officers to leave FPD for policing jobs elsewhere with better work hours, pay and benefits.

“For the first time in my life, I’ve had a talk with my family about other places to be a cop,” he said. “Because this kid who grew up in this great city, who wanted to raise his family in this city, is running out of steam and not feeling valued as an employee or an officer.”

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Departures have also left the city’s dispatch operations severely understaffed.

At the fire department, EMS providers are struggling to keep up with an ever-increasing number of ambulance calls.

“We’re increasing calls around an average of 400 to 600 additional calls each year,” said Nick Clark, president of the Fairbanks Firefighters Union. “We’re definitely stretched thin. You can see it in the members’ eyes.”

City Fire Chief Todd Chambers said he currently has people working eight days straight, around-the-clock to cover for fellow staff out for medical and other reasons.   

“It’s a terrible, terrible balance and a terrible choice,” he said. “Do I burn my people up and take a risk of pushing them beyond their capacity? Or do I stop giving the service to the citizens that they’re paying for.”

Chambers said new Medicaid funds for ambulance transport reimbursement are coming to the city. It’s money the council could use to bolster fire department staffing, he said. 

As far as funding to help retain police officers and dispatchers, Mayor Jim Matherly is pushing a new approach that, he said, could boost pay for short-staffed city departments.

“Take money and put it to human capital,” he said.

Matherly has proposed what’s being called the Employee Capital Incentive Program, in which money budgeted for salaries that goes unused in a given department due to unfilled positions would be paid out to employees. 

“Those that have the least amount of employees, i.e. the most salary savings, would get the most money — trying to offset that quality of life impact that we’ve had on the employees,” said Chief of Staff Mike Meeks.

Another proposal aimed at attracting and retaining employees would provide additional leave. 

“Give them maternity leave, and bereavement leave,” said City Council member Valerie Therrien. “That’s something which is another way of trying to tell our employees that: ‘We really want you to stay and this is a bonus that you’re getting.’”

Therrien said the city is trying to address the critical staffing situation in a very tight budget year and may have to dip into savings to do so. 

Mayor Matherly will provide the council with his 2022 budget proposal later this month.

Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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