Just as the Mount Airy Police Department is returning to full strength, the city fire department is experiencing personnel shortages that are sparking concerns for both the short and long term.
“We have lost eight this year, eight positions,” Fire Chief Zane Poindexter said Thursday during a meeting of the city Public Safety Committee, a group including commissioners Dean Brown and Jon Cawley, which convenes periodically to address police and fire issues.
At present, the Mount Airy Fire Department is four people short. At full capacity, it has 41 members, of which 19 are full-time employees.
While the present vacancies are problematic, Poindexter seemed equally concerned about the underlying factors behind the trend, including the pay rate for Mount Airy firefighters.
“Salaries are a big issue,” he said during Thursday’s Public Safety Committee meeting, which also was attended by City Manager Barbara Jones.
Not only is the fire department having difficulty recruiting enough applicants to fill the ranks, it is seeing employees leave for departments in other areas. “What I’m finding is we’re losing people to smaller municipalities,” Poindexter said, including the town of Rural Hall and in Yadkin County.
The fire chief said he also recently learned that five of his employees had applied for jobs in King.
“That sent doorbells ringing in my ears, to see what was going on,” Poindexter said of the interest in jobs with other agencies.
“I even had one that was willing to go down in rank and start over, because the pay is not that much different.”
Poindexter acknowledged that the Winston-Salem Fire Department represents Mount Airy’s biggest competition for personnel.
Along with losing members to other firefighting agencies, some employees have jumped to the private sector, according to Poindexter. One notable example involves Fire Engineer Mike McCraw, a 17-year department veteran who recently became a funeral assistant at Moody Funeral Services.
Engineers are officers in charge of each apparatus in the fire department, who rank right behind captains on the leadership chart.
Lost experience critical
The departures have been evidenced not only in sheer numbers, but the experience factor. Overall, those now serving in the position of firefighter average less than two years on the job.
“Our most-tenured firefighter is 2012,” Poindexter said of the date that individual was hired. He said higher-ranking members have been there for longer times.
“We have qualified people,” the chief said, “but they don’t have the fire ground time (long-term exposure to emergencies).”
Poindexter said no major incidents have occurred so far due to the inexperience issue, but that a critical factor is involved when it comes to knowing the proper action to take at a fire scene.
“We’ve got to have good people making these decisions,” he told the committee members. A mistake at a fire scene can mean losing a building “just like that,” such as ventilating a structure when that is inappropriate.
“That’s the decision-making that comes with experience,” the chief said. “Experience is the key.”
Part-time vs. full-time
Another issue Poindexter raised concerns a revolving-door situation among Mount Airy’s part-time firefighter ranks and the difficulty getting them to become full-time members.
“We go through so many part-timers anymore, we don’t even pin them,” Poindexter said of formal ceremonies officially welcoming fire personnel to the department. Those employees are coming and going “all the time.”
Since the city fire department has 19 full-time slots, less than half of its total payroll, part-time personnel are relied upon heavily, the chief said.
One might think part-time workers are anxious to become elevated to full-time status, but that’s not the case.
Poindexter said part-timers have expressed unwillingness to make that step because of the pay ($26,430 per year for starting firefighters) and are waiting to get hired in Winston-Salem.
“And that’s frustrating, after we’ve invested the time in them,” the chief said of the process to become certified firefighters.
Commissioner Cawley suggested that having such personnel sign contracts to remain with the Mount Airy Fire Department could be a remedy.
“It’s just not something that we’ve done before,” Poindexter said of that practice, with the Winston-Salem Fire Department the nearest to Mount Airy which has such a policy.
Similar to police
Personnel shortages also have been a problem for the Mount Airy Police Department in recent years. This prompted a new initiative earlier this year which provides incentives to attract qualified applicants, including paying for their Basic Law Enforcement Training (BLET), then retains them as members of the force.
After passing an initial screening process, recruits receive a conditional offer of employment, which requires signing a training agreement. Recruits have the status of a temporary city employee while they are enrolled in the BLET program, which includes receiving a stipend every two weeks based on a pay rate of $12.10 per hour and 80 hours of training.
In exchange, the training agreement contractually obligates the employee to work for the city for two years.
The new program played a key role in the recent hiring of five officers. Police Chief Dale Watson said during Thursday’s meeting that the department now has only one vacancy, but someone is contracted to fill that slot.
Also, the city commissioners decided during recent budget deliberations to raise the starting pay for officers from $29,000 to $34,000.
This option was taken as opposed to across-the-board raises for municipal employees. Cawley said during the budget discussions that salary relief could be implemented next year for other city personnel, include fire department or public works personnel.
The fire chief said he wants to offset the present vacancies in addition to increasing the pool of applicants — especially among local residents because they have a vested interest in the community.
“I hope we can get these positions filled and get something to keep the people (applicants) coming,” Poindexter said.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.