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Fire staffing remains a challenge

Hall loses many firefighters to other counties after investing in their training

POSTED: July 22, 2012 11:30 p.m.

A shortage of Hall County firefighters is leading to fewer responders available for emergencies.

Before the county’s finances took a hit in recent years, there were three responders staffed to each fire truck — a driver, a firefighter and an officer.

That number is down to two because of departmental hiring freezes and a steady flow of veteran firefighters leaving for other jobs.

“Very, very seldom does a fire truck have three,” said Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell.

That low level of staffing can limit what firefighters can do on the scene of emergencies — at least until more emergency units arrive. It could also have consequences in the future for Hall County residents’ home insurance premiums.

Most Hall County fire stations have at least four firefighters on duty. Two firefighters are assigned to a fire engine and two to an ambulance. So on many calls, four firefighters can respond together.

Those numbers can work well on structure fires, Kimbrell said, because when attacking flames, the department’s policy is to send at least two men into the building and have at least one to man the fire truck.

But when there are multiple calls near one station, things get tricky.

“Two can’t really fight a fire,” said veteran Hall County firefighter/paramedic Tim Roper.

In the event that just one truck gets to a fire first, there’s only so much the responders can do.

“Two firefighters can work the exterior of a fire, but no one can go inside,” Roper said.

Staffing levels also affect rescue and medical calls. With car wrecks, the more firefighters on scene, the better equipped they are to treat patients, Kimbrell said.

Still, in terms of overall public safety, Kimbrell defends the job his firefighters perform.

“I think we do a great job with what we have,” he said. “Of course if we had a fire station every four or five miles, fire hydrants everywhere and three firefighters on every truck, yeah, we think we could fight hell with a water pistol.”

But in reality, Kimbrell said the county’s financial situation has limited the department.

“Our overall capability has diminished due to economic conditions,” he said.

At full staff, Hall County Fire Services would have 332 budgeted positions. Some 300 of those would be on-duty firefighters, paramedics or officers. The other 32 are administrative positions, including the chief.

At present, 14 of those positions are frozen and 10 more are vacant.

And it’s not that the county is unwilling to hire new firefighters. In February, the department brought on 15 new firefighters to the department. But since that time, 12 other veterans left for positions outside the county

“They’re good at getting new people, but they don’t stay very long,” said Hall County firefighter/EMT Matt Carney.

Meanwhile, some of the new hires haven’t started full-time shifts because they’re still completing monthslong training courses.

Kimbrell said the problem is that many firefighters get training and experience in Hall County, then bolt for departments that offer better pay and benefits.

“We’ve lost a lot of good people,” said Lt. Danny Roberts, an officer with the department. “I’ve heard some people say, ‘Look, I can’t afford to work here.’”

Until recently, all Hall County employees, firefighters included, were subjected to 12 furlough days a year and no retirement contribution by the county.

The Hall County Board of Commissioners recently passed a budget that reduced those furloughs to three and added a modest retirement contribution. But some neighboring stations still offer better incentive packages.

“We’re basically a training ground for metro Atlanta,” Kimbrell said.

Even with contractual obligations, other fire departments are buying out those Hall County-trained firefighters because it’s still cheaper than training new firefighters themselves, the chief said.

It may not only be occasional public safety concerns the county faces if staffing issues aren’t resolved. In a few years, the county’s fire department will be up for review by the Insurance Service Office to rate the quality of service.

If the department receives a poor score, it could increase home insurance premiums countywide. Staffing levels are a factor in that rating.

Kimbrell said he’s unsure how much they would sway the county’s current rating of 4 out of 10. One is the best score and offers the lowest premiums.

The chief described the convoluted calculations that decide the rating as a “gosh-awful algebraic equation.” But he anticipates it could lead to a worse score.

Hall County Commissioner Scott Gibbs said that, moving forward, the county would look to protect the county’s current rating, but points out that adding dozens of firefighters would be expensive.

“I’d love to have a fire station on every corner,” he said. “On the other hand, what we can afford is what we can afford.”


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