8News Investigates: VDEM staffing shortage and work hazards

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Whether it’s coordinating the touchdown of a mid-flight, launching a search for a missing child, like Robbie Wood or monitoring Virginia’s nuclear power plants, it all begins in the Virginia Department of Emergency Management’s (VDEM) Watch Center.

“Sometimes we have multiple search and rescues going on,” says a former VDEM watch officer:

Two former watch officers and a current watch officer who we are not identifying have reached out to 8News concerned about the safety of Virginians.

“The watch officers, some had left and they didn’t replace them,” says the former watch officer.

Video taken by one of the former watch officers on duty shows an empty office.

8News was told it was common in the watch center, responsible for multiple emergency calls around the state, to have just one person working.

“The staffing started getting low to where we would be working 10 hour days. You would just keep going sometimes for 10 to 11-day stretches,” the former employee said.

Staffing schedules shared with 8News also confirm the shifts, just one person was scheduled to answer emergency calls for the entire week.

The watch officers say they couldn’t even leave to use the restroom.

“We didn’t have the state-mandated 15 minutes break, we didn’t have the state mandated lunch. If a ball gets dropped there’s nobody to go back behind you and say hey wait, we forgot this.
That lets all of Virginia down,” says the former watch officer.

8News went to VDEM to get answers.

“We did have a staffing shortage of full-time folks at that time,” says Jeff Caldwell, VDEM’s Director of External Affairs. Caldwell admits VDEM was down watch officers during what we’re told was a transitional period when several workers left in a short period of time.

He says when possible, volunteers with the National Guard and Virginia Defense Force were brought in to help.

But he tells 8News Virginians can now breathe a sigh of relief, the staffing shortage is no longer an issue.

“‘Staffing has been doubled in this facility,” says Caldwell.

He says this summer the Center, now called the Situational Awareness Unit, underwent a complete overhaul.

When 8News visited VDEM, three watch officers were on duty.

“It’s at least two and you can see in this schedule we have at least three in almost every shift,” says Caldwell.

However, 8News also uncovered last year, that the state agency in charge of Virginian’s safety was cited by VOSH, Virginia Occupational Safety and Health.  VDEM was cited for several workplace hazards including unsanitary restrooms, tripping hazards and a lack of first aid kits.

We asked, how did that happen?

“There were first aid kits here, many of the contents had expired,” explains Caldwell.

This too, Caldwell says has been corrected.

8News could see the first aid kits have been replaced and the tripping hazards were gone with the renovations. Caldwell also told us a full-time cleaner had been hired.

“It has been a time of transition for us the past three years but we are emerging now a stronger agency,” says Caldwell.

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