Firefighters and Emergency Medical Technicians must undergo extensive training, leaving a significant bill for fire services to pay.
That's why employees of both Hall County Fire Services and the Gainesville Fire Department who leave prior to their contract commitment must foot that bill, or at least part of it.
Both departments require employees to sign a contract that makes them liable for the costs of EMT and paramedic school if they leave before fulfilling that obligation. That contract usually includes a three-year commitment after the completion of training.
Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell said the department is in the process of hiring additional employees and will begin including a statute in the contract that makes the employee liable for fire school costs as well, if he or she leaves early.
Those costs are prorated depending on the length of time the employee worked for the department.
Kimbrell said it costs approximately $11,000 to put a firefighter through EMT, paramedic and fire schools.
Gainesville Fire Chief Jon Canada said after adding equipment and salary costs to the training expenses, the total comes to approximately $35,000.
Incumbent employees are also obligated to sign a contract if they attend training school, Canada said.
Georgia law enforcement agencies also have similar requirements regarding the reimbursement of training costs.
State law states that if any municipality hires an employee away from another department within 15 months after completing training, the hiring agency is required to pay the full cost of training, including salary.
If the employee moves during a 15- to 24-month period, the hiring agency is responsible for half the total expense.
Both the Hall County Sheriff's Office and the Gainesville Police Department train officers at the Northeast Georgia Police Academy in Athens. The cost of training is approximately $7,600 per officer, which includes officers' salaries for 10 weeks, meals, lodging, uniforms and graduation fee.
Employees often transfer to another department before their contract commitment has expired primarily because of better pay and benefits. In many cases, they transfer to metro Atlanta departments, both Kimbrell and Canada said.
"That happens all the time," Kimbrell said. "You can't blame an employee if they can leave here and not be furloughed and have retirement. And most of the metro (Atlanta) departments pay a little bit more than we do."
Firefighters can also find better opportunities overseas working contract jobs that can pay in the range of $100,000 tax free annually.
The added pay can be lucrative enough to lure the employee away during the contract period.
"With an increase in pay sometimes, a lot of times it's not too hard for them to pay that back," Canada said.
"Quite a few people have left to repay that cost, and actually some of the metro departments were paying that cost for them," Kimbrell said.
Canada said he is aware other departments may repay training costs but says he has never received a reimbursement directly from another department.
It can be cheaper for a department to pay the prorated cost the firefighter owes to his old employer than it would be to pay the full training cost for a rookie firefighter.
Kimbrell said many Hall County firefighters transfer to Gwinnett County Fire and Emergency Services, the Atlanta Department of Fire Rescue or other metro Atlanta departments.
Eric Eberly, public information officer for Gwinnett County Fire Services, said Gwinnett does not pay any training costs a transferred employee owes his or her former employer.
"There are various reasons why people leave one organization for employment at another," Eberly wrote in an email to The Times. "Like in any other profession, changing place of employment is a personal decision and we would not want to speculate on the reasons for those decisions."
While the departments can require employees to pay back at least a portion of training costs, they can't require them to pay back salaries earned while training.
"Our goal is to be a very good department, but also not to be a training ground for other departments," Canada said. "On one hand, it's a compliment when a department hires one of our people. ... On the other hand it has become very costly for us."
Kimbrell believes other departments seek Hall County fire employees because of the department's training standards.
"Hall County has, for a long time, had a good reputation throughout the state as being a good department," Kimbrell said.
Hall County Fire Services is the seventh largest fire department in the state and draws employees from all over Northeast Georgia, even from North Carolina, Kimbrell said.
Eberly agreed Hall County's standards produce highly trained emergency services employees.
"We certainly agree that Hall County's training is very good," Eberly said. "Because Hall County trains their firefighters very closely to our standards, we know that the needed training has been instilled in the new firefighter."