HILTON HEAD, SC — It’s not hard to persuade someone to visit Hilton Head Island. But in recent years, it’s been difficult to convince first responders that they should move here and work for the island’s fire department.
Deputy fire chief of operations Chris Blankenship has reported losing nine firefighters in the past year.
Some retired. Others went to different departments. Others left the field entirely.
Five of the departures have happened during the coronavirus pandemic.
Although first responders have been highly praised during the pandemic, they’re still stretched thin. While Hilton Head’s department has had only one staff member test positive for (and subsequently recover from) the virus, losing firefighters over less-than competitive pay creates a difficult situation for everyone — members of the department, leaders and the community they work together to serve.
Hilton Head’s Town Council voted last week to accept a compensation package that would boost firefighters’ average pay to around $51,000 per year — just above the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2019 national average of $50,850. The package will cost the town $964,000, town staff said.
Now Hilton Head Island’s firefighters start at just over $40,000 per year. That’s between $4,000 and $5,000 below the national average, Blankenship said. Coupled with Hilton Head’s cost of living and the likely relocation expenses, it can be a hard sell beyond “come live on the beach.”
“My No. 1 question that I get asked is ‘do I have to live on the island?’” Blankenship said.
They don’t. Blankenship reports that some on staff commute from Georgia, and others from north of Columbia, to work.
On Hilton Head, fire services and emergency medical services are combined into one department. That means a firefighter is trained to go out on medical calls, return to the station and hop on a firetruck to put out a blaze, Fire Chief Brad Tadlock said. Hilton Head is the only place in the county where the two services are fused.
If applicants are paramedics, their starting salary is bumped to just over $46,000. One paramedic must be on every call.
But why travel over the bridge when other departments keep the services separate — and pay more? Blankenship said the island’s biggest competition is Bluffton, which is half the size of Hilton Head but growing, building new stations and paying a little more.
Hilton Head’s 146-person department last sent out a call for applicants two years ago. Blankenship said that for the first time in his 20 years in the field, not a single paramedic applied.
“We’re currently four short, and my intent is to hire four more firefighter paramedics,” he said. “My biggest need is paramedics at the firefighter level.”
Blankenship has made four offers to fill vacancies in the past few months. Three of those people turned down the offers, he said. They didn’t say why.
“We find ourselves in a very unique situation where we absolutely need to get out and hire some firefighters, and our current rate of pay is just not going to get that done,” Town Human Resources Director Angie Stone told Hilton Head’s Town Council last Tuesday before the vote.
The Town Council’s agreement comes as it is also trying to negotiate financial plans with the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement services. While Hilton Head doesn’t have its own police force, both public safety services are grappling with how to properly fund and retain employees on the island.
From The Island Packet