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For several years, the James City County fire department has seen a growing trend in firefighter turnover — as much as 15 percent of its force departing in one year.
While some firefighters resign for medical reasons or retirement, fire officials have found the turnover rate follows a pattern of personnel finding better-paying jobs.
Officials hope to rectify the situation and have turned to the county budget to find incentives for firefighters to stay.
Beginning July 1, dozens of James City County firefighters could see either a $3,000 or $6,000 salary raise, Fire Chief Ryan Ashe said.
The raise hinges on approval by the Board of Supervisors, who are scheduled to vote on the county budget by the end of April. It could mean an extra financial boost for firefighters with certain levels of experience, Ashe said.
“I’ve seen a firefighter leave for as little as $1,000,” County Administrator Bryan Hill said. “If you continue to do things the same way and expect different results – it just doesn’t happen.”
Intermediate providers would receive $3,000 more per year, and paramedics would see $6,000 per year, Ashe said.
“Staffing has been our Achilles’ heel for a number of years, but we hope this is a big step in fixing that,” he added.
The salaries of James City County’s 99 firefighters, who are cross-trained in both fighting fires and emergency medical services, range from $35,477 to $69,927, Ashe said.
“Typically, we’ve seen folks leaving for a few thousand dollars,” he said. “We thought it was a short-term problem that had basically become the norm.”
Localities all over the Peninsula are facing similar retention problems, said Don Dinse, president of the local firefighter’s union, covering Poquoson, York County, Williamsburg and James City County. In January and February, York County firefighters worked hundreds of hours of overtime to compensate for staffing issues, some of which dated back to the 2008 recession.
“Now we’re seeing firefighters bailing for money,” Dinse said. “It makes sense [to give them a raise], not only for financial reasons, but when you see high turnovers and low morale, you also see more injuries and outages.”
Although the pay raises total a substantial amount of money – $218,000 – the funds will not increase the fire department’s 2018 budget, Ashe said. The funds are shifted to salaries from the overtime pay section of the budget.
In fiscal year 2017, ending June 30, James City County budgeted $733,000 for firefighter overtime pay. In 2018, that number is proposed to be $515,000, Ashe said.
For Ashe, seeing firefighters go through six to nine months of training, only to see them leave a year or two later, is not economical.
“We’re spending the money anyway, but we aren’t getting a return on our investment,” Ashe said of training new hires. “We need to keep these folks we’ve spent time and money on and show we’re committed to them.”
While officials acknowledge some firefighters will resign or retire each year, both Ashe and Hill said the goal is to keep the number of vacant positions below six.
When a group of trainees reaches six or more people, the price to train each person increases dramatically. James City County needs to provide their own instructor at the regional fire academy when they send six or more trainees. At seven people, costs increase further because firefighters on-shift need to work overtime to answer calls while people are in training, Ashe said.
Training also involves buying uniforms, equipment and textbooks, which bumps up the cost, he added.
“It makes no sense to spend thousands and thousands of dollars to train these people and then have them leave right after,” Dinse said.
While the raises will greatly benefit James City County firefighters, Dinse worries the localities may end up “trading” firefighters if localities increase incentives.
“They just need to makes sure they keep hiring, even if they’re retaining them,” Dinse said.
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