← Back to portfolio

PG Fire, EMS director speaks candidly after internal investigation

Published on

PRINCE GEORGE – In his first comments after the completion of an extensive internal investigation into Prince George Fire and EMS, the department’s director Brad Owens said they take all of the allegations detailed in the investigation’s finding seriously and have begun implementing many of the recommendations brought forth by the investigative body.

Earlier this month, officials confirmed an investigation into the operations of the county’s fire and EMS department had occurred after allegations of discrimination, improper hiring and promotions practices, staffing issues, along with a number of other safety and human resources-related issues with the agency.

According to documents, county supervisors requested the investigation, tasking both the county attorney’s office and human resources department to carry out the inquiry.

That investigation, according to Prince George County Attorney Daniel Whitten, was deemed closed as of two weeks ago, with the formal report and attached recommendations shared with the county board of supervisors being provided to The Prince George Journal through a Virginia Freedom of Information Act request, with some portions of the records redacted in accordance with records exemptions in the law.

Prior to the investigation’s closure, Director Owens, along with County Administrator Percy Ashcraft were asked not to comment on the matter to the media, with County Attorney Whitten serving as a spokesperson for both the county and the fire and EMS department during an interview in late February.

Last week, Owens opened up about the findings of the investigation saying, while he had not seen the official report that was presented to the county board of supervisors and was not involved in the execution of the inquiry, he said he has begun working to address the findings detailed in the county’s report and roll out recommendations.

“Without being involved in the investigation, I am limited on the information I have on what occurred and those kinds of things to be able to make sure we are addressing specific issues, so we have to address it in a broad sense,” he said. “We are doing many things, some of the things we already had in place, we are just revising them, if need be. We are looking at ways to strengthen them. If there were any questions about them, we are making it more clear than they were in the past.”

According to Owens, he and Ashcraft held a staff meeting with fire and EMS staff where they talked about implementing the recommendations shared through the investigation and what the department needs to do now to move forward.

That meeting took place on Feb. 28, the same day The Prince George Journal met with County Attorney Whitten and Prince George County Board of Supervisors Chairman Donald Hunter to ascertain an official response to a number of allegations made against the county’s fire and EMS department.

Whitten, Hunter, Ashcraft, and Owens were all requested to attend the meeting but, two days prior, the county administrator and director of fire and EMS were withdrawn from the Feb. 28 meeting.

Along with that staff meeting, Owens said he has met with captains in the department and intended to meet with lieutenants as of early last week.

“We are looking at the allocation of staffing, overtime situations, making sure policies are being adhered to, so we haven’t had any issues with that,” the director said. “It is a good opportunity for us to take an overall examination of the department and see if there are any deficiencies out there, what we need to, where they are, what do we need to do to correct them and how do we move forward to understand what we are doing to move forward.”

According to the findings of the investigation and statements from both current and former employees of Prince George Fire and EMS who spoke with The Prince George Journal under the condition of anonymity, issues of racial and gender discrimination, along with allegations of bullying and harassment, and volunteers not being held to the same standards as career staff were referenced.

When asked, Owens said matters of that nature are concerning for him as his department evaluates processes to ensure policies are followed.

“There are no indications that we have seen but, when someone makes an allegation like that, we take it seriously and we want to make sure nothing like that is taking place out here and that everyone understands this is a teamwork-oriented organization,” the director remarked. “It is not one person that makes this organization run, it is multiple people and we all understand that we all have to work together and respect one another as we are moving forward.”

In speaking about the county’s hybrid fire and EMS system of career and volunteer staff and how the department has grown since 2014, Owens stressed the importance of having a combination system where both sides understand the value each brings to the organization as they work together to deliver services to county residents.

“I have had that conversation in many of our staff and other meetings that we will be a combination system for a long time,” he said. “We have to rely on each other and make sure that the career understands the importance of the paid staff. They paved the way for where we are today since 1957, when the first station started down the street here in Prince George, all the way through the 1970s when the emergency crew started.”

The director continued, “As new members come into our organization, there has to be an equal amount of respect there that we are here just trying to keep up with the call load and provide the level of service the citizens want and expect.”

As a result of the investigation, it was recommended “extensive training” be provided to all fire and EMS employees, including the director, on topics of workplace discrimination and diversity. Paired with that, new employees would be required to complete diversity and sexual harassment training upon hire, with all staff receiving similar training annually.

“[It is] concerning when you see those things,” Owens said of the discrimination and harassment allegations. “I want to make sure everybody, once hired, has the opportunity to be successful. I meet with all of the employees when we do the onboarding, HR meets with them and goes over training for harassment, and reporting discrimination, and we try reinforce that through the training we do here and training they receive when they go elsewhere.

Improper discipline practices, including terminations, were listed in the county’s investigative report, resulting in the investigative body recommending both human resources and the county attorney’s office assist the director in handling employee discipline. In addition, Owens and “any supervisor in the Fire and EMS Department” are prohibited from using the term “managing out.”

The county’s official report did not define what “managing out” meant, but a current public safety professional who spoke with The Prince George Journal anonymously described it as a method that would see an employee depart the organization following a series of write-ups for alleged infractions in a short period of time.

When asked, Owens said he “doesn’t use that word,” adding, “I try to let all of the employees know that my job is to help you be successful in wherever you want to be. Here is our organization, this is where we are, a combination organization, career and volunteer.”

“We do run fire and EMS calls and we have some guidance with career development and paths like that for people to be successful to move up through their career. 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,” he continued.

After allegations of employees being “managed out” out of fire and EMS’ workforce and improper discipline practices in the department, the director said they follow a detailed county discipline policy and state regulations laid out in the Firefighters and Emergency Medical Personnel Procedural Act within the Code of Virginia.

“What it is doing is notifying the employee that we have to investigate this complaint or allegation or whatever occurred,” Owens detailed. “That is a state law we have to follow, we have always followed it. It involves me working with the county attorney’s office and HR on the process, saying, ‘Here it is, here is what we have been led to believe so far, now we have to interview the person to get their perspective on what occurred and allow them the chance to see the allegations and to get their perspective of what took place.’”

He added, “Then we take that back to meet with the county attorney and human resources to determine the best course of action for that.”

In regards to other forms of alleged retaliation, including hours for part-time employees being cut back or outright not being scheduled for shifts or others not receiving access to overtime, Owens said he was not aware of any such incidents.

“I don’t know of anyone who was not given time because we have gone back and checked those and see if that was the case,” he explained. “It may have been a situation where maybe they didn’t have a certain credential or something is why they weren’t given time over someone else.”

“I can’t put it together yet but we will take a look at it and make sure there is none of that going on and making sure we have the parameters in place to treat everybody fairly. That is what we are supposed to be doing at the end of the day ... making sure everyone has a fair opportunity to come out here and work and provide the best level of service that we can to the citizens of Prince George,” the director continued.

On the subject of overtime specifically, he said, through their own internal review, their policies had been adhered to and, “There was nothing to suggest there was any type of discrimination against overtime or somebody getting overtime.”

Owens noted that they are working with their software vendor to get an automated system for scheduling, while stressing there are “a lot of moving parts” when it comes to the development of schedules as they look at staffing needs at stations, the availability of part-time staff, and the needs of specific shifts.

“Hopefully if we can find a system that will work out that will allow us to automate it a bit more based on credentials and things like that and take that spotlight away that one person [who] may be showing any type of favoritism or getting more overtime and someone else,” he said.

The county’s investigation also found instances of improper use of the department’s chain of command, with some close to the department stating superiors had barred employees from speaking to members of the Prince George Board of Supervisors under penalty of insubordination, an action that violates state law, namely Va. Code 15.2-1512.4.

When approached, Owens said the use of the chain of command is discussed in the department regularly when it comes to an employee wishing to see an issue addressed but, he stressed employees are free to contact members of the board of supervisors with concerns though, the department would prefer to know about that contact.

“Yes, the employees do have the right to go to the board members,” the director remarked. “We ask that they follow the chain of command, that way, we have an opportunity to address it. That way, if there is a severe situation that is going on, we can correct that immediately versus waiting for them to meet with a board member, coming back around that way and then we have to still investigate what is going on because the information could get lost in translation or something like that.”

He continued, “Certainly, yes, they have the right to go to a Board of Supervisors member or multiple ones if they choose to but it doesn’t give us an opportunity to fix the issue if there is one. So the biggest thing is, if you do contact a board member, we would like to know about it because we want to make sure the board member is getting the correct and accurate information and not maybe just one side of the story through one person’s lens who may not have all the additional information that goes with that, as well.”

With retaliation being a recurring theme of both current and former employees who spoke to investigators and The Prince George Journal about their experiences, Owens was also asked about allegations of “interference with future employers,” a finding detailed in the county’s investigation, who said he was not aware of any such claims.

“I haven’t received anything here in my office,” the director said. “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.”

He added that he is “seeking clarification” on that specific finding to see what it means when it comes to personal references that may be provided by a former county employee at their next prospective employer.

“Typically, those localities know to go to the [Human Resources] 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 also responded to concerns about the county seeming to focus too much on firefighting training as opposed to emergency medical services, saying, while some employees may be more “passionate about certain aspects of the job” than others, at the end of the day, the department’s workforce is “cross-trained to be able to provide those different functions.”

“We are an all-hazards department,” Owens remarked. “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. 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.”

On the topic of paramedic training, he would say they are looking at ways to retain people whose training the county has paid for as, in some cases, once an individual has completed the training, “they would look at employment with another agency that might bring them a bit more money now that they have that paramedic certification.”

Owens said he is hopeful the addition of a deputy director position will help alleviate some of the workload he is currently managing, a position the county hasn’t had for nearly a decade, he explained.

“Now it seems to have some light on it and hopefully we will have the position funded and come out here and assist with some of activities that are going on to make sure we are doing everything we possibly can to keep the organization running as smoothly as possible.” the director remarked.

With the results of the investigation now public, some have suggested changes in leadership may be needed to improve condition and raise morale in the department, including at the director-level. When asked for his thoughts on those sentiments, Owens said anyone who serves as the county’s director, 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.”

As the department works to implement the recommendations shared by the investigative body, Owens said the allegations shared were taken seriously and corrective actions are being taken to address them and ensure they aren’t repeated.

“We are going to do everything we can to implement measures in place if they don’t exist to make sure these allegations don’t become a reality,” the director shared. “We also are going to look at current practices that are in place to make sure, if we have a process that can be strengthened and be better than it is, we are doing that.”

“Ultimately, we want the citizens to know and be reassured that when they call 911, we are going to respond to the best of our capabilities with the best personnel and equipment we can provide out there so their investment of tax dollars into the safety system is a good investment.”

“We are going to continue to provide the best level of service that we can to them,” Owens closed.