After the announcement Friday to spend about $1 million in overtime pay for Hall County Fire Services, county officials will be looking at how to address staffing concerns.
The county scrapped its plan to cut ambulances from three stations and move the personnel to the city and South Hall. The plan was ahead of a scheduled Insurance Service Office inspection in October, which would scrutinize the county on its busiest stations.
According to an open records request filed by The Times, 38 people have left the department between January and July. There were 22 hires between October and November, and another 18 new people in April.
“I think one of our issues is we’re dealing with a low unemployment rate. ... That’s a challenge, because we’re fighting and competing with employers of all other kinds for people,” human resources director Bill Moats said Wednesday.
At a meeting Tuesday in Gillsville, Fire Chief Jeff Hood said there were 51 vacancies.
“The 51 is what would need to come up to minimum standard per (National Fire Protection Association) standards,” Moats said.
Moats said they are currently in the recruiting process for the next potential class of firefighters. This month, there were four proclamations between Fire Services and the Hall County Sheriff’s Office for 20-year retirees, Moats said.
Of the 38 departures, a handful were new recruits dropping out in the first two weeks, Moats said.
“We do have some that go work in other municipalities, and we have some that it’s our choice that they go away,” Moats said.
Moats said the starting pay for a firefighter I is $33,873. A firefighter II starts at $35,566, with a 7.5 percent increase after EMT certification and again after paramedic certification.
Firefighters work 24 hours on and 48 hours off, with overtime paid after 106 hours, Moats said.
The shortage led to many instances where medical units had to be shut down in Stations 9, 10 and 11 to provide enough staff to cover calls in more densely populated areas of the county.
“When we had to find a way to reallocate resources, those are the units that we chose to reallocate the resources from,” Deputy Fire Chief Mark Arnold said Friday.
Overtime has been a bottleneck for EMS service since May, when the county had to freeze overtime payments because of budget constraints, according to Hood.
“Regularly, you see some firefighters signing up for overtime every pay period. There’s a core group that’s working as much overtime as they can,” Moats said.
The result has been that EMS staff in the more populated areas of the county have been hitting overtime caps because of the staff shortage and have been forced to stop working.
When that has happened, EMS units from rural areas of the county have been pulled into the city and South Hall.
According to a job listing for Gwinnett County Fire Department, starting salary for a firefighter/paramedic trainee is $34,246. After obtaining all of the certifications, the salary jumps to $39,633.
The listings for Forsyth County Fire Department have the starting salary for a firefighter/emergency medical technician as $38,173 and the firefighter/paramedic will earn $40,801.
Molly Ross, a former dispatcher from 2014 to 2017, said pay is one of the biggest concerns for people leaving the county.
“They sign their contracts for two years that they’ll stay with the county, and then they leave to go to another county,” she said.
An estimated $75 million lawsuit was filed in March by five current and former Hall County employees regarding allegedly frozen pension benefits. The case was recently transferred from Fulton County to Hall County.
Moats said there have been discussions among county staff on retention and benefit plan changes, but he said Wednesday it would not be appropriate to elaborate beyond that.
“If something were to change, then I wouldn’t want to set unrealistic expectations for staff,” Moats said.
A positive change in recent months, Moats said, was the creation of the fire employee council to improve communication from staff to administration.
In July, Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch said one idea discussed was moving public safety employees to a separate pay scale and retirement benefits plan compared to other county employees.
“That’s where we’re basically bleeding or hemorrhaging employees are in those fields, and the training and education and all the equipment that goes into getting a deputy sheriff certified and up and running ... that’s a huge investment,” Couch previously told The Times. “And that’s something that we need to protect.”
They sign their contracts for two years that they’ll stay with the county, and then they leave to go to another county.Molly Ross, former Hall County dispatcher