Portsmouth City Council approves one-time stipend for first responders

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Portsmouth City Council has taken a step to keep emergency responders from leaving their positions.

Council unanimously approved a $1,000 one-time stipend for police, fire, EMS and dispatchers Tuesday night, provided the workers agree to stay on the payroll until the end of June.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Psimas said the city is losing emergency responders to retirement and other jurisdictions, and the stipend is in addition to a $1,000 bonus most employees got last month.

Photos: Stipend approved for emergency workers

Kurt Detrick, head of the Local 539 fire and EMS union, said staffing numbers for Portsmouth have not been where they should be. He estimated the fire department had 40 vacancies.

“Places have to stay competitive in the region and unfortunately, over the years, we’ve fallen behind the other jurisdictions in this area,” he said.

When trained firefighters leave, it takes time to replace them.

“It takes from the day you show up to the academy, anywhere from six to eight months to whenever you can be on the floor and be assigned to a company and actually responding to calls,” Detrick said.

Detrick said firefighters support and appreciate the council’s decision.

“It’s a ‘thank you’ for serving and we hope you’ll stay. We see you, we appreciate you and we know you’ve been sort of overworked and underpaid,” Psimas said.

The councilwoman said the city is working to beef up compensation to stay competitive.

“You’ve got to have enough firemen on the fire truck. You’ve got to have enough officers on the street to help each other… for their own safety, and we’ve certainly got to have 911 operators to make all the trains run on time,” Psimas said.

The Portsmouth Police Department said it has 20 vacancies, with 12 recruits in the academy and eight in or about to start field training.

Police Chief Tonya Chapman provided the following statement:

All members of the Portsmouth Police Department, both civilian and sworn, are our most valuable asset. Our primary responsibility to the citizens of Portsmouth, as stipulated in our Mission statement, is to ensure the protection and security of all people. We believe that by providing quality public safety services we can improve the quality of life for our citizens while combating crime in the community. I am pleased that City Council voted to give our sworn Police Officers and Police Dispatchers a one-time stabilization stipend. As with most cities, we are losing qualified officers and dispatchers on a monthly basis. The purpose of the stabilization stipend, for the specified employees, is to incentivize those individuals thinking about leaving to stay with the agency for the next few months to give us an opportunity to train individuals to take their positions. As we continue with our recruiting efforts to hire and train new police officers and dispatchers, it is important to remember that the comprehensive training these men and women receive takes time to ensure that they are prepared to undertake the responsibility of the highly stressful situations that they will be exposed to on a daily basis. We thank City Council for the stipend and rest assured we are working hard at training new officers and dispatchers as we continue our efforts to reduce crime within our community.”

For fiscal year 2016, Portsmouth city leaders faced a $11.7 million shortfall and froze positions within the police and fire department.

In March 2016, former Portsmouth mayor Kenny Wright said for fiscal year 2017, police and fire chiefs would look at their departments and determine how many positions were needed. Then council would unfreeze positions that the new chiefs said they needed.