Fire departments across the country are in dire need of more employees.
Douglas County is among the many fire departments looking for more manpower on the front lines, with 30 vacancies.
Add the fact that many eligible firefighters and paramedics took advantage of early retirement, and the county has a big shortage.
“Firefighter shortages exist nationwide and Douglas County is not exempt,” Douglas County Commission Chairman Romona Jackson Jones said in an email to the Sentinel last week. “Most recently, the county launched a robust firefighter recruiting program to combat staffing shortages. Currently, there are 25 newly hired firefighter recruits undergoing required training to fill the staffing shortage void related to numerous retirements and the agony of 14-day quarantines due to COVID-19 exposures.”
Because of a budget shortage, the county had to furlough employees, including first responders.
Jones also pointed out this problem is on a national scale.
“Douglas County firefighter furloughs were a hot topic in 2020,” Jones said. “While in retrospect the National Fire Chiefs Association reported 30,000 firefighters were furloughed for a period of 26 days and/or laid off across the nation in 2020 due to the pandemic.”
Retired Douglas County firefighter Thomas Woodruff questions the safety for firefighters and the residents with a shortage of employees within the department.
“This has been going on 10 to 15 years industry wide,” said Woodruff, executive director of Faithful Guardian Training Center-Faithful Guardian Aviation. “While there is a nationwide shortage of paramedics, Douglas County is not being proactive in recruiting and maintaining personnel. Other departments in the metro Atlanta area are giving raises, cost of living raises and some are offering sign-on bonuses for paramedics. Douglas County is furloughing firefighter/paramedics.’
Jones contends that public safety is not at risk because of the shortage. She said overtime is built into the budget to cover emergency situations.
“Life safety is extremely important, therefore the Board of Commissioners provides an annual allocation of a $1 million dollar overtime budget, which is utilized to address staffing shortages and other extenuating circumstances.”
Woodruff said the personnel shortage has also led to some trucks being shut down.
“Not only are they shutting trucks down and cutting out emergency coverage for certain areas,” Woodruff said. “They are also running with personnel men per apparatus which means they are at 50% recommended staffing of national standards. The NFPA sets the standard for fire trucks staffing at four personnel per fire apparatus. Douglas County never staffs four personnel per fire apparatus to meet the national standard. They are the only metro Atlanta fire department that fails to meet this standard.”
Woodruff said some firefighters are taking jobs in neighboring counties that have a higher pay scale.
“Douglas County is also the lowest paid metro Atlanta fire department,” Woodruff said. “It’s sad that the commissioners’ part time administrative assistants make more money than firefighters make while risking their lives. Douglas County also has slapped the firefighters by watching other departments give bonuses to their employees. Other departments get raises and the fire department gets furloughed in the middle of a pandemic and right before Christmas.”
Jones said a pay hike is not being discussed.
“As aforementioned, there were 30,000 firefighters furloughed and laid off across the nation due to budgetary constraints associated with the impact of COVID-19 across the nation, and consideration of bumping up pay to attract firefighters is not up for discussion at this particular juncture,” Jones said.
Jones said a new fire chief will be coming on soon. The BOC last month approved the hiring of Roderick Jolivette. Jolivette will replace longtime fire chief Scott Spencer, who retired last year after 44 years of service to the county.
Jolivette is awaiting a background check and other hiring procedures from the human resources department. Jolivette is currently serving as fire chief in Manchester, Ga.
The BOC said one of new chief’s first tasks will be to restructure the department.
Jones said she is hopeful that the addition of the new recruits will ease the county’s shortage.
“I would like for the 30 positions to be filled as soon as possible,” she said.