MARION COUNTY, FL – Seasoned firefighters are leaving Marion County at an alarming rate, the county fire chief reports, and in the process are presenting the department’s brass and the County Commission with a dilemma about how to retain veterans and not drive up costs for taxpayers.
Assistant County Administrator Stuart McElhaney, who doubles as the fire chief, told commissioners recently that staffing ebbs and flows are expected.
But now what is worrisome — for county leaders and the local medical community — is the level of seniority held by those who are leaving, McElhaney said.
According to a department report, the average tenure of a firefighter who quit the county in 2013 was just more than six years. That excludes retirements.
That level of seniority is the highest for departing firefighters going back to fiscal year 2002, when the County Commission first adopted a long-range plan for fire service.
The report also indicates that the tenure of those who left the ranks last year has risen sharply since fiscal year 2009, when the county took over countywide ambulance service. The seniority level of firefighters who separated from the county last year nearly tripled that of five years ago.
The reason behind the turnover is unclear, although salary was most likely a key factor, McElhaney told commissioners Wednesday during a presentation of his five-year strategic plan for the department.
Whatever the cause, McElhaney described the exodus as “disconcerting.”
“While not a crisis right now, if that trend continues, it will be,” McElhaney said.
McElhaney told the board he anticipates having to find new people, since hiring is cyclical. What’s different now is who is quitting rather than how many.
Not only do the firefighters who left have “significant” experience, a large number of them were part of the ambulance crews, McElhaney said.
Marion County firefighters are dual-certified, meaning they are trained as both firefighters and paramedics or emergency medical technicians, or EMTs.
“It’s not so much the numbers that concern me or … the medical community, it’s more the experience level that we’re losing,” the chief told the commission.
Consequently, he added, “It translates to a lower level of experience on our ambulances touching patients.”
“At some point down the road,” the chief concluded, “the likelihood of misdiagnosis or mistreating a patient increases.” And that, in turn, boosts the potential liability for the county.
McElhaney said he could not identify a specific reason because many who leave county employment decline to sit for exit interviews.
Yet it’s clear other fire departments are beginning to hire as the economy improves, McElhaney said, and while it’s not all about money, more pay is a factor.
“It seems to be financially driven more than anything else,” he said of the anecdotal reasons provided for the resignations.
A beginning firefighter also trained as an EMT starts at about $29,640 a year. If certified as a paramedic, a new county firefighter makes about $35,600, department spokeswoman Jessica Greene said.
But pay for county firefighters has been stagnant for nearly three years. In an effort to hold down costs during the economic downturn, the county firefighters’ union, International Association of Firefighters Local 3169, agreed in December 2011 to a three-year salary freeze.
The administration and the union are set to open talks on a new contract next month.
As pay has remained flat, the work level has increased. McElhaney noted to the board that service calls for fires have remained relatively stable over the past few years, but ambulance calls have climbed.
Over the past two years, for instance, the volume of calls for emergency medical services has increased by more than 1,300 calls a year — enough to justify a new ambulance and crew for each year, the chief said.
McElhaney said those calls would likely continue an upward trend as the county’s population ages.
It’s unrealistic and infeasible to expect the county department to compete with big counties such as Hillsborough or Orange, McElhaney said.
But, he added, Marion County ought to be able to attract people in its market, including the city of Ocala and surrounding counties.
Commissioners seemed open to finding a way to keep the county’s more experienced firefighters.
Commissioner David Moore, citing a salary study of county employees completed last October, observed that firefighters were “massively underpaid,” relative to their counterparts elsewhere. Better to retain current employees, he added, than to go through the expensive process of hiring and training new ones.
Commission Chairman Carl Zalak expressed concern about the county serving as a “training ground” for other departments.
The commission did not take any action on the plan. The chief recommended conducting another salary survey of surrounding areas to gauge where Marion County stands.
But rather than simply utilizing the human resources department to gather that, McElhaney said, the county should ask the union for its input because its members would better understand the factors that contribute to firefighter compensation.
McElhaney added that he had built funding for a pay bump into the five-year plan but declined to discuss details about that until meeting with the union.
The board said it would revisit the whole plan, including the compensation aspect, in coming weeks.