FAIRFAX, Va. (WUSA) - In this time of budget cuts and calls for fiscal responsibility, 9News wondered why the Fairfax County Fire Department had more than two dozen take-home vehicles.
They're assigned to senior officials who are subject to "emergency call-outs." Most local departments define those as fire and rescue incidents involving 'significant injury or death.'
Reporter Andrea McCarren obtained a stack of internal documents from Fire Department higher-ups urging fuel conservation and a limit to non-essential travel for everyone driving a taxpayer-funded vehicle. What we found in practice appears very different.
On any given day, the parking lot next to the Massey Building in Fairfax County is filled with marked, and mostly unmarked, take-home vehicles including Ford Explorers, Chevy Tahoes, Chevy Impalas and even gas-guzzling Ford Expeditions. (Editor's note: 12 city/18 highway)
"Most of our firefighters don't get paid for their commute. Most of our citizens don't get paid for their commute,"said Pat Herrity, a Fairfax County Supervisor to whom we showed our findings.
But it appears, that senior level fire officials are.
"If what we're really talking about is vehicles that are used for commuting... that shouldn't be happening," said John Cook, also a Fairfax County Supervisor.
The take-home cars are intended for emergencies, so senior command staff can respond to fire and rescue incidents on a 24-hour basis. So, through the Freedom of Information Act, we obtained the call logs covering three months of this year.
Page after page, we found NO emergency call-outs at all. And those logs that were filled out listed emergencies like 'retiree's dinner', 'recruit graduation' (in which multiple vehicles went to the same event at the Government Center) and 'funerals' for non-County employees.
Said Cook, "If they're in a position of regularly responding in the middle of the night, off-hours, they ought to have a vehicle. But we don't need vehicles that are perks. Since our vehicles aren't being used for response, then they're not needed."
We also examined where these 29 take-home cars are going each day. Most are to destinations well outside Fairfax County. The records reveal round-trip distances as far as 332 miles, making "emergency response" questionable.
Asked Cook, "What are you coming back to do two hours after the event occurred if you live that far? And even if you're an hour away?"
To determine the cost to taxpayers, we enlisted the help of WUSA9 Accounting Manager Art Pangilinan.
Taking the Kelley Blue Book value of each vehicle based on its make, model and year, we calculated the cost of gas based on the average distances traveled. For gas alone, taxpayers are spending more than $112,000 a year.
"It's not just the gas. It's the wear and tear on the vehicle. It's the insurance. It's the repairs, the oil changes, the everything else. Just the administrative overhead of maintaining a vehicle fleet," said Cook.
"Based on what I see here, I've got some serious questions," said Herrity.
The County audited the Fire Department's use of take-home vehicles in 2009 and discovered shoddy record-keeping.
"It was very sloppy. Obviously repeated entries. Dates that were incorrect. February 29th, 30th, February 31st," said Herrity.
And for 2011, we too found several dates that simply don't match.
"Obviously, it looks like we still have some problems with documentation," said Herrity.
Added Cook, "We need to be smarter and we need to look at this."
"I think it's time for us to have the auditor go take another look at take-home vehicles," said Herrity.
Our requests for an on-camera interview with Chief Ronald Mastin were declined, but his spokesman issued the following statement:
"The 29 county approved take-home vehicles directly support the overall operational mission of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department and its more than one million residents. It is essential for key leaders to be able to respond when operational capacity dictates, especially working in a constant 24/7, public safety environment of saving lives and protecting property. Committing resources around-the-clock, in support of emergency services is necessary for critical, no-notice support of emergency incidents. However, just as important, we strive to be good stewards of the resources provided to us by the taxpayer and use those assets set forth by the rules and policies of this department and Fairfax County."
Written by Andrea McCarren
9NEWS NOW & WUSA9.COM