Columbia-Richland Fire Department attrition
Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins said his department loses too many firefighters each year as employees find work elsewhere. He also says its costly to train new firefighters. The department is authorized to have 499 paid personnel. Here are attrition numbers he presented Columbia City Councils public safety committee:
Columbia-Richland Fire Department Chief Aubrey Jenkins is asking for better pay and benefits for his firefighters to help curb a nearly 50 percent turnover rate in the past six years.
Earlier this week, Jenkins gave City Councils public safety committee statistics showing the department has lost 231 firefighters since 2006. The department, which fights fires in the city and Richland County, has 499 employees. The losses have come through retirements, employees leaving for better jobs and firings, Jenkins said.
We want to remain competitive with other departments in the Southeast so we can recruit the best people and retain them, Jenkins said.
He also presented a report that showed Columbia firefighters on average were paid much less than their counterparts at other departments. The report, compiled by the USC Institute for Public Service and Policy Research, found in some cases Columbia firefighters were paid nearly 30 percent less than people in similar positions in other cities.
However, the report was met with skepticism by council members who criticized the studys methodology. The report was a compilation of pay information submitted by nine fire departments, including those in Rock Hill and North Charleston as well as Nashville, Tenn., and Orlando, Fla.
Council members said comparing Columbias fire departments to those in much larger cities would create an inaccurate picture of fair wages for local firefighters.
There are a whole lot of factors missing here to fully understand the situation, said Councilman Daniel Rickenmann. Id be hard-pressed to believe we were 30 percent different than other departments.
Firefighter attrition and pay has been a recurring issue for City Council. The departments chiefs have been talking about the problem for years. So has the Columbia Firefighters Association, a group that represents city firefighters.
Jenkins said other departments entice his younger firefighters.
But Jenkins also is losing a high number to retirement, especially with the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the state retirement system. Already, 15 firefighters have left the department in 2012. Another 10 who are eligible for retirement could decide to leave by the end of the month, he said.
Travis Carricato, a spokesman for the Firefighters Association, said he has lost co-workers because they find better pay and better hours at other fire departments.
Columbia is training them and giving them the experience, and they leave for other departments and are making more money, Carricato said.
Columbia firefighters work 24 hours and then have 48 hours off. They work about 2,900 hours per year, plus overtime.
An entry-level firefighter earns $28,919. Firefighters are given additional pay as they earn special certifications and advance through the ranks.
The cost to the city comes in having to pay to train new recruits, Carricato said. He referenced a report produced by Mayor Steve Benjamins 2010 transition team that said the city spent $1.75 million to train new firefighters over a three-year period.
A fresh recruit spends 16 weeks training to become a firefighter, Jenkins said. It takes about six weeks to get someone with firefighting experience ready to serve at the Columbia Fire Department, he said.
The department spends about $16,800 to prepare a recruit, including $11,200 that goes toward his salary, said Brick Lewis, a department spokesman.
Public safety costs money, Carricato said. Does the public keep spending millions to replace them or spend less to retain them? Its going to cost money either way.
Jenkins said he will continue pushing the issue at City Council. He pledged to bring council members more information about hourly wages, holiday and overtime pay.
City Council is poised to give all city employees a 2 percent cost-of-living increase in its 2012-2013 budget. It would be the first across-the-board raise in four years.
City Manager Steve Gantt told the public safety committee that firefighters werent the only city employees who might require better pay. This year, the city has lost an attorney and two finance department employees who found better-paying jobs, he said.
As the economy gets better, were not just going to see folks leave the Fire Department or the Police Department because we havent been able to do anything with salaries, Gantt said.
Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.