Raises seen as way to keep experienced firefighters in county
In the past three years, Georgetown County has lost nearly 100 firefighters and paramedics to higher paying jobs.
Some took jobs in places as close as Horry County, where starting salaries are about $5,000 higher than in Georgetown County.
Others went farther away.
One firefighter/paramedic took the same position in Montgomery, Md., for a salary of $70,000. That’s $11,000 more than fire chiefs, the highest paid firefighting employees in Georgetown County, earn.
Another firefighter moved to Florida to make surfboards. He now makes more money than he did at Midway Fire Rescue.
Chief Mack Reed of Georgetown County Fire and EMS said the exodus began when Georgetown County cut employees’ salaries about three years ago.
“We’ve always had a pretty good turnover here but it’s gotten worse,” Reed said.
Georgetown County Council is in the midst of finalizing the budget for Fiscal Year 2014, which begins July 1.
Council member Bob Anderson said salaries are being studied for all county employees, not just firefighters.
“We’re not prepared at this time to lay out all our solutions on the table,” Anderson said.
Complicating the situation is the fact that the majority of county employees get paid out of the General Fund, except for Midway, the Sheriff’s Office and Fire District 1, which all have their own tax districts.
“We have been working diligently for the last six to 10 months,” Anderson said. “This is not something that has been taken lightly.”
“Everyone recognizes that Council has some tough decisions ahead of them,” said Midway Fire Chief Doug Eggiman. “And everyone recognizes we’ve had some tough times in the last few years.”
Midway has 64 full-time positions. About half of the employees have been with the department less than five years, Eggiman said. Fourteen have been with Midway less than a year.
Eggiman and Reed both said it costs about $5,000 to $7,000 every time a new firefighting employee is hired.
A big part of that money goes for custom-fit protective gear, which can cost around $2,300. Although the fire companies keep the gear when a firefighter leaves, unless it fits another employee, it may not be used for awhile.
“If it’s too big or too small it compromises the protective ability of the gear,” Eggiman said. “It can also impact your ability to move or maneuver.”
Other costs include uniforms, physicals and drug screens, in-house training, and off-duty training that adds to overtime expenses.
The constant cycle of hiring employees is also time-consuming, Eggiman said. It’s gotten to the point where Midway is holding interview days about once a month, with three or four of its officers taking time away from their regular duties to evaluate job candidates.
When new employees are hired, they spend the first week with a training officer, which leaves less time for the officer to perform his other duties.
“We hire them with basic firefighting training and then they have to pick up all the other stuff while they’re here,” Eggiman said.
Some people come to Georgetown County specifically to get their basic firefighting training and then move on, Reed added.
Firefighters and their supporters packed a recent County Council meeting, urging the panel to raise firefighters’ salaries.
The meeting came a week after the bombings at the Boston Marathon, and just days after 10 first responders died when a fertilizer plant exploded in Texas.
Several Waccamaw Neck residents told County Council they would be willing to pay more in taxes to give Midway employees raises.
“To pay them wages that are just above the poverty line is morally reprehensible,” said Dr. Morgan Lowry. She said a tax increase of $10.40 would fund $5,000 raises for all 64 Midway employees.
Bob Meltzer, chairman of the Fire District I board, said the county spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on new trucks and new stations.
“I don’t come with a lot of facts and figures, I come with a lot of heart and pride,” Meltzer said. “Those trucks and stations cannot fight fires.”
By Chris Sokoloski
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