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Owens out as PG Fire, EMS Director

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Search for new director begins amid COVID-19 public health emergency

PRINCE GEORGE – County Attorney Daniel Whitten confirmed late last week that Brad Owens, the county’s longtime fire, EMS, and emergency management director is no longer employed with the county, with his departure coming as Prince George responds to the COVID-19 public health emergency.

In an interview, Whitten said Owens “has separated from Prince George County” but he was unable to specify if the former director had resigned or been terminated, simply stating it was “a personnel matter.”

Owens’ departure saw the county move forward with advertising his position on their governmentjobs.com opportunities page midway through last week. The job, which carries an annual salary between $96,098 to $158,562, will remain open for applicants until filled as a closing date isn’t listed on the webpage.

In the interim, Donald Hunter, county supervisor and deputy emergency management coordinator will oversee the department until a temporary director is brought on, which Whitten said should occur by the end of this week.

“He is leading the department while we look for the interim director,” he said. When asked, Whitten said having Hunter serve in that role does not create a conflict of interest given his status as both an elected official and county employee.

“There isn’t because he was employed in this position before he became a board member and it is temporary,” the county attorney detailed. “Because there isn’t a deputy director in the fire and EMS department and he had always played the role of filling in for Brad when he was on vacation or out sick so, this is a role he has played in the past.”

“It is no different than the role he would take when Brad was on vacation,” Whitten noted.

Over the last six to eight months, Owens and his department had been under scrutiny following allegations of discrimination, harassment, bullying, and other misconduct within the ranks of Prince George Fire and EMS.

Following a Freedom of Information Act request by The Prince George Journal, investigation documents revealed a series of “prevailing themes in the department,” ranging from “dysfunction, favoritism, significant safety concerns, volunteers not [being] held to the same standards as career staff, capricious disciplinary action, [race and gender] discrimination, harassment and bullying, and arrogance.”

From there, over a dozen issues within Prince George Fire and EMS were detailed as part of their investigative findings, the majority of which were related to human resources, with findings of improper hiring, promotions, and certifications, along with problems with evaluations and “possible falsification of evaluation records.”

As part of a series of recommendations aimed at fixing the issues with the department, all of their supervisors, including Owens were directed to undergo “extensive training” on the topics of workplace discrimination and diversity, along with sexual harassment and diversity training being required for all of the department’s new hires and conducted annually with all of their staff.

In addition, the director position was named specifically in regards to the investigative body’s recommendation to have all of the department’s supervisors, Owens included, receive “extensive training … on the proper way to conduct a performance evaluation.”

Following multiple accounts from former county Fire and EMS employees who were interviewed at length during the county’s independent investigation, Owens and all of the department’s supervisors were prohibited from using the phrase “managed out.” That term, according to the former employees, relates to a form of discipline where a staff member receives a large number of write-ups in a short period of time in an effort to get the employee to resign or eventually be terminated.

When asked in March, Owens denied using the phrase.

“I try to let all of the employees know that my job is to help you be successful in wherever you want to be,” he said to The Prince George Journal in March. “All we can do right now is address that across the board and say, ‘This term can’t be used out here.’ We don’t have the specific timing of when it was done or who said it so we have to address it across the board.”

With retaliation involving both current and former employees being specifically noted in the county’s independent investigation, including instances of “interference with future employers” after a staff member departs the county, Owens said he wasn’t aware of any such claims involving his department.

“I haven’t received anything here in my office,” the then-director said in March. “We reiterate to office staff, if we get any phone calls or letters referencing employment, we send that up to HR. As I have asked, there have been no incidents that I am aware of out here,” noting he was “seeking clarification” on that specific finding as it relates to personal references that may be provided to a former employee for their next place of work.

“Typically, those localities know to go to the HR department anyway but we are definitely going to make sure we are aware of that and if that happens, we have parameters in place to understand and channel that to the HR department,” Owens said.

He would also rebuff current and former staff concerns about his department focusing too heavily on firefighter training as opposed to emergency medical services, stressing that Prince George Fire and EMS is “an all-hazards department” and, while some employees may be more “passionate about certain aspects of the job” than others, the department is “cross-trained to be able to provide those different functions.”

“We could be responding to a medical emergency right now, to responding to a motor vehicle accident in an hour, to a hazardous materials release a bit later, to a structure fire after that,” he detailed. “So we have to be prepared for all hazards that our organization is faced with and when you look at a fire and EMS department over the last several decades, there have been a lot more things these departments have taken on.”

After the details of the county’s independent investigation became public, some, including former employees who recounted their experiences, suggested it was time for the county to part ways with Owens and bring in new leadership to the department. When asked, Owens said anyone who serves in the position, be it him or someone else, needs “the support and resources requested” in order for them to be as effective as they can.

“Our call load continues to increase over the years, we have brought on new employees and we have more employees every year, we have new projects and initiatives,” he said. “If you look at our work history and six-month work plan, we have made some significant improvements in public safety and our response but, again, I am only one person. I need more assistance and more help in managing these projects and looking at the organization overall to make sure we are compliant with every aspect that we have to be.”

He hoped bringing on a deputy director would help to ease some of the workload he was managing, something the county hasn’t had for roughly a decade.

The request likely won’t be fulfilled as that and several other positions were cut from the county’s proposed budget as the economic impacts of COVID-19 results in over $1 million in revenue evaporating from the county’s FY2021 budget.

The timing of Owens’ departure comes amid the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic as the county manages its public safety assets in the face of increasing COVID-19 cases

According to the latest numbers from the Virginia Department of Health, Prince George is one of four Crater Health District communities with 40 or more cases of COVID-19 and for a time, the county led the district in total cases. As cases continue to rise both in Prince George and neighboring localities, the conversation now shifts to what effect Owens’ departure will have on the county’s response to COVID-19.

When asked, Whitten stressed the community shouldn't have any concerns about the department’s ability to respond to the pandemic and that Hunter has been largely at the helm of the county’s efforts.

“I know Mr. Hunter has primarily been handling the COVID-19 response,” he said. “Since it started, he has been on all the conference calls and he has been sending all the updates to us so he has been the one primarily handling the response since this began. We have people in place who can handle the response and know what tools to use so I don’t think there should be any concerns.”

Whitten continued, “All of the operations are still in place and the same employees are in their current roles. There haven’t been any changes in the organizational structure so there shouldn’t be any changes in responses and we will still be able to protect the county and its citizens.”

In regards to finding Owens’ replacement, Whitten said they are hopeful to have a permanent director in place within the next 60 days or perhaps sooner.

“Hopefully in the next 60 days, we will have someone in place. It would be great if we had someone in the next 30 days but it really depends on the person we find, where they are working, and how much notice they have to give,” he remarked. “But, I would say in the next 30 to 60 days.”

Whitten closed, “We hope to have an interim person in place by the end of [this] week.”