In recent years, austerity measures in Hall County prompted many of the fire department’s firefighters to leave for more lucrative positions in other counties.
But county officials are hoping for a turnaround this year and in years to come to relieve strained stations operating on bare bones staff.
“It’s a money factor and a safety factor,” Hall County Fire Chief and Emergency Services Manager David Kimbrell said.
If stations were fully staffed, he said, there would be “less overtime and less cost of training.”
“When we are short-staffed and we’re thinly staffed, the safety factor comes into play, because inherently it’s a dangerous job, and if you have an inadequate number of people to do that, then our guys are still going to do whatever it takes to serve the citizens,” Kimbrell said. “Sometimes that means they are doing more than they should. Duties are more dangerous to do by themselves, so No. 1 it’s a safety factor.
“No. 2, we’re hiring overtime just to keep a minimum number of people in the station that we need to have to even open the doors.”
A recent class of 25 recruits has filled the gap. Six recruits who came in with EMT training have already begun, and 14 others will complete such training in October.
It’s been a challenge just keeping up with a problem that left Hall County 10 percent below minimum staffing last year, according to a report by the fire department and given to the Hall County delegation in the Georgia General Assembly.
“Last year when he hired new recruits, we hired 14 people,” Kimbrell said. “That was to replace people who had left. Those people were in training for fire and EMT, and by the time they were done with that training, which is about six months, there had already been 14 other vacancies. So you take the cost of all that training, and the cost of paying them to go to school, the cost of the instructor salary, etc., it’s a little over half a million dollars, so basically we spent a half a million dollars and didn’t have a net gain of any employees.”
And because training recruits is a pricey investment on the county’s part, Kimbrell said, Hall wants to reap the fruits of its labor.
“We’re not losing the entry level people, and we’re not losing out senior people; we’re typically losing people who have been here four to 10 years, who have gotten a considerable amount of training and some experience, and they are very marketable to other departments,” he said. “For a long time ... the fire chief in Gwinnett would always kid me that they were getting ready to start a recruit school, so he was going to see how many well-trained folks they could get from Hall County.”
There is a three-year commitment to work for the county, or recruits have to repay the cost of training, something the department is “evaluating,” Kimbrell said.
“There are many departments who do not require them to commit to stay, but we started that commitment quite a ways back, so we’re evaluating that now to make sure that the commitment is long enough and to make sure that we’re doing it exactly right,” he said. “Strictly off the top of my head, I would say the commitment would be longer.”
But Kimbrell expects the situation to turn around with the reinstatement of several county employee benefits.
“One of the main things, of course, the past year and a half, we’ve been able to eliminate furlough days,” County Administrator Randy Knighton said.
County furlough days started in October 2008. The last furlough day was in November 2012, Knighton said.
“We also have been able to restore the base retirement,” Knighton said. “I think with the restoration of retirement and elimination of furlough days, which is essentially a 5 percent reduction in pay over the course of the year, I think it speaks to the county’s solid financial footing at the moment, and it speaks to the future as well that we’ve been able to weather those austerity cuts and are now laying the foundation for a more solid future. That’s very positive, and we’ve come a long way.”
Kimbrell agreed, although he did bemoan that the lure of higher pay might still cause departures.
“We do still have some people that are leaving for higher pay that are going to other departments for more money, so we can’t address that right now, but with the growth and potential for possible promotions, we hope people will stay,” Kimbrell said. “If people can hold on through the rough times, then they’re in a better spot to be eligible for promotions when the economy does turn around.”
One thing the county does not lack is interest for hiring trainees.
“We’ll be recruiting 25 people, and that is for the new station and to fill vacancies for people who have left,” he said. “We typically have an average 250 applicants who apply when we do a recruitment.”
Friday, the department posted a notice for 15 new positions to staff the new Station 16, soon to be constructed along with a new building for Station 3. Both stations should be open by next spring.
Thursday, the Hall County Board of Commissioners awarded the construction contract to Charles Black Construction at a cost of $2,685,160, Knighton said. The funds for the station are coming from SPLOST V.