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Budget cuts leave Hall firefighter shifts short of personnel
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Marc Brown, left, and Anthony Caruso, both with Hall County Fire and Emergency Services, check supplies in a medical unit. Because of furloughs and a ban on overtime, some emergency vehicles might run with one less person aboard. - photo by Tom Reed

For most county employees, the new economically mandated monthly furlough means closing up an office for a day.

For essential public safety agencies like Hall County’s Fire and Emergency Services, it’s not that simple.

In the short term, furloughing all of Hall County’s 300-plus firefighters and support personnel means they’ll stick to their typical 24 hours on, followed by 48 hours off shifts, but won’t get holiday pay for at least the next six paid holidays between now and April. In the long term, it could mean that senior command staff at headquarters will roll up their sleeves and respond to fire and medical calls. And in the worst-case scenario, it could result in some undermanned or out-of-service ambulances, fire engines, ladder trucks or rescue trucks.

But for now, the county’s freeze on overtime pay and new hiring is hurting the fire department worse than the mandated furlough, fire officials said.

"Some engines right now are below the recommended staffing level," Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell said.

Kimbrell said no overtime pay, unfilled vacancies and new recruits who haven’t completed schooling all contribute to the staffing problem.

The National Fire Protection Association recommends a minimum of four firefighters for every fire incident response. The "two and two" recommendation allows two firefighters to go inside a burning building while two stand by outside should problems arise.

In Hall County, the standard staffing is three people per truck or engine. It takes about 100 people to fully staff a shift for Hall County’s 15 stations. With current vacancies, most shifts now hover around the 90-person mark, Kimbrell said.

In the past, officials used overtime pay to plug the holes when staffing issues arose, particularly when it came to sick leave.

As opposed to the private sector and most of the public sector, "public safety and especially fire services is a little different," Kimbrell said.

"If a secretary calls in sick, basically their desk sits empty that day. But it’s kind of hard to leave a seat on a fire truck sitting empty. That’s what the overtime (pay) is for."

Said Hall County Fire Marshal Scott Cagle, "The furlough is an easier thing to swallow. The thing that’s going to hurt us is that overtime (freeze)."

Cagle said in worst-case scenarios, ambulances in "slower" portions of the county would be shut down for the day, with ambulances from nearby stations handling that area’s medical calls.

Cagle noted that Kimbrell has developed a plan for lieutenants and captains at fire department headquarters to man trucks for a day to keep that from happening.

"We’re ready for it if it comes to that," Cagle said.

At Fire Station No. 7 on East Crescent Drive, Lt. Jeff Vinson and his fellow firefighters don’t mind giving up their holiday pay if it means keeping their jobs.

"It could be a lot worse," Vinson said. "A lot of firefighters in surrounding counties are losing their jobs. That’s not happening here. Nobody’s being laid off, so we’re fortunate to hopefully handle it this way."

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