Inadequate pay for Gainesville firefighters is causing attrition within the department and costing city taxpayers dearly, according to multiple sources in the fire department.
Sources also said city management has been unresponsive to their concerns for years, prompting them to speak out about dwindling morale, risks to public safety posed by the pay issue and a worrisome lack of experience among a growing number of firefighters.
The Times has learned that city management and human resources officials had selected about 20 firefighters for interviews in recent weeks to discuss concerns about pay, leadership and morale within the department.
The idea for such interviews came after an inquiry in August revealed morale and leadership issues within the police department, leading to Chief Brian Kelly’s resignation Aug. 29.
A handful of interviews were conducted with firefighters, with the remaining scheduled for this past week.
But according to sources, those interviews were canceled after The Times published a story Oct. 10 reporting they were taking place and quoting anonymous sources within the fire department who expressed dissatisfaction with pay and leadership.
It is unclear when or if the interviews will resume. City leaders have declined repeated requests for comment.
The sources within the department said they were told city management and human resources officials canceled the interviews to protect employees, and that fire department leaders had asked them to keep quiet.
But the abrupt decision to cancel the meetings because of The Times’ story has only compelled more firefighters to speak out.
Indeed, those sources — speaking on the condition of anonymity because they fear reprisal — said they were motivated to tell their side of the story and were angered when officials scrapped initial plans to speak with fire personnel.
“Pay is the No. 1 issue with us,” one source said. “Our issue is more with the city than it is with the fire department.”
While the sources said fire department management misled them when they promised a 10 percent pay raise when the department received the Insurance Services Office top classification for fire prevention and response earlier this year, they ultimately hold city management and city council responsible for not addressing the pay issue sooner.
They added that Chief Jerome Yarbrough may be made a scapegoat in the matter as he appears hamstrung by city management.
How bad is the pay?
Over approximately the last seven years, firefighters have received just one pay increase, a 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment sources say has been diluted by increased health insurance contributions, such as life and disability.
As a result, sources said the vast majority of the approximately 90 city firefighters work second or third jobs to make ends meet.
Some firefighters reportedly work for other fire departments in the region, while others work for private emergency medical services. And some reportedly are on food stamps.
Firefighters work on 24-hour shifts. Sources said the fact that most have to work a second job poses a risk to public safety because they are stretched thin between work shifts.
An annual 5 percent pay increase was once the norm for city firefighters, as was a longevity bonus. Both were scrapped when the recession hit several years ago.
Sources with varying years of experience said many firefighters take home less than $1,700 a month after taxes and retirement contributions, adding it is impossible to raise a family on such wages.
According to a job posting on the city’s website, starting pay for a firefighter or emergency medical technician is less than $29,000 a year. In Hall County, the same position begins with a starting pay of $33,669.
The starting pay in Rome, which has a comparable population size to Gainesville, is $29,500. But the pay range goes up to $48,000, thousands more than Gainesville’s top dollar salary for the same position.
Firefighters in LaGrange, also of a similar population size, start out at more than $32,000.
Firefighter recruits in College Park, which has less than half the population of Gainesville, start out at more than $37,000.
Gwinnett County starts firefighters out at more than $34,000, with a bump up to nearly $40,000 after initial training is complete and certifications are obtained.
In Cumming, a city with less than 6,000 residents, starting pay is about $36,000 a year.
City management has said it is embarking on a pay study to determine if workers’ wages and benefits across all departments are competitive with similar-sized governments and private sector job equivalents, though it will likely be next year before this is complete.
But sources question whether this is really necessary and feel city leaders are just putting off the issue and hoping it dies down.
They argue the city’s $30.3 million general fund budget this year is sufficient to cover raises, particularly for veteran firefighters.
City Council did approve merit raises of up to 5 percent for workers in this year’s budget, but it remains unclear when and how those raises will be applied.
Sources question why the fire department is purchasing a new heavy rescue truck when a similar search-and-rescue vehicle is already at their disposal. They say the hundreds of thousands of dollars earmarked for the truck would be better applied toward addressing the pay issue, even if it comes from a separate budget.
Sources also said they are never reimbursed, either for their time or travel expenses, for the amount of training and certifications they have to complete every year.
But despite their concerns about pay, sources said they continue to work as firefighters because they have a true passion for the job and love serving the residents of Gainesville.
Attrition’s impact on taxpayers
Sources told The Times that about a dozen firefighters have left the department in the last year or so because of inadequate pay, and that several more are threatening to leave before the end of the year if the issue is not addressed.
It costs the city tens of thousands of dollars to train a new firefighter. And when firefighters leave the department after just a few years on the job, taxpayers don’t get their money’s worth.
Sources said there becomes a point where firefighters have invested too much to leave, which explains why so many exit the department before they’re in too deep.
Firefighters are vested in retirement after 10 years on the job.
Attrition has become so problematic, sources said, that the department is hiring young firefighters who lack the life experience to perform well in such a stressful job.
Moreover, sources said that veteran firefighters are concerned about their own well-being as institutional knowledge flies out the door.
Fewer, and less qualified, applicants are seeking work in Gainesville, sources said. They fear that as the problems persist, the city will lose its top ISO rating, which could hit taxpayers’ pocketbooks in the form of increased insurance premiums.
“The city of Gainesville is going to be a rookie fire department” if the pay issue isn’t adequately addressed, one source said.