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Dropping experience requirement is positive step toward filling vacancies, Conn. fire chief says

Wallingford opted to remove the one year of experience qualification from future applications to open the EMS positions up to a broader pool of applicants


A Wallingford Fire Department ambulance.

Wallingford Fire Department/Facebook

By Journal Inquirer, Manchester, Conn.

WALLINGFORD, Conn. — The recent reduction in experience requirements for EMS workers is a positive step toward filling vacancies, according to the fire chief, while union leaders say it’s simply a way to avoid raising wages that will ultimately compromise service.

Some town councilors also expressed concern over the change in requirements during a meeting late last month and the decision to move forward with the reduction has drawn sharp opposition on social media.

Fire Chief Joseph Czentnar responded to the criticism by saying that both the pay rate and job requirements are comparable to the rest of the market.

Previously requiring one year of experience, the town opted to remove this qualification from future applications to open the position up to a broader pool of applicants, in what Czentnar called a slim and deeply competitive market. This also aligns Wallingford with other municipalities and for-profit EMS services, which similarly do not have an experience requirement.

Wallingford added the stipulation three years ago during the pandemic, to bolster its EMS program with experienced personnel when they were in high demand, aiming to fill 16 positions, he said. Now looking for three new EMTs, the chief asked to remove the requirement because an experienced staff is in place and capable of training new members on the job.

Other departments, including police and fire, also do not have experience requirements.

“We’re just looking at how to be competitive in the market. Like I said, going back to removing the one year, nobody else has that,” Czentnar said.

But Scott Smith, secretary of Wallingford Professional Firefighters Local 1326 , a chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters , says lowering the requirement was a poor decision that would compromise the quality of service to residents, with in-field evaluation giving a steeper learning curve to new EMTs. And it doesn’t fix the fundamental issue of the department being overworked, Smith said.

“It’s going to be basically harder for them to adapt faster in a lifesaving situation,” said Smith, a veteran firefighter. “Eighty-five percent of our calls are medical. So you’re putting 85 percent of the calls in hands of guys who have no experience. Doesn’t make sense to me.”

He said although members of the union don’t believe the initiative will work, they didn’t fight the change at the request of Mayor Vincent Cervoni , who asked for it as a show of good faith at the start of his tenure as mayor, Smith said. Cervoni is Wallingford’s first new mayor in 40 years, taking over for William W. Dickinson Jr ., who did not seek re-election.

Cervoni, however, said Tuesday he did not recall any substantial conversation with the union about the altered language of the job posting, just a brief conversation in passing during an event.

‘Can’t have a normal life’

According to Smith, the changes in 2020 were the town’s third attempt to rework the EMS department. Previously the town utilized firefighters with paramedic training as part of its response teams, and never had issues regarding staffing or overtime. Yet, the town pivoted to wanting a dedicated EMT team that was not connected with people in fire service.

Several medically trained volunteer firefighters applied for the positions, Smith said, but were turned down due to their connections to the fire service. This necessitated mass hiring with higher qualifications to get the department off the ground, to fill 16 positions.

Under the new system, which is now short three positions, the existing EMTs are pulling 36-hour shifts to fill in service gaps.

The fire chief “is trying to get more people, because the turnover ratio here is so high because you can’t have a normal life here. If you’re on the ambulance side of it, you’re never going home. You’re ordered constantly to stay, and that’s why our turnover rate is probably so high because you can’t have a life out of here,” Smith said.

A second point of concern was base salary, which is around $43,000, according to Czentnar, but with overtime pay can reach $78,000 on average. Democratic Town Councilor Jesse Reynolds expressed concern that the amount in base salary is not sufficient given the cost of living in Wallingford and would make it difficult for EMTs to live in town.

Czentnar stated that their pay was comparable to other services, and it was a rate that was agreed upon with Local 1326. The new rate is higher this year than it was the years previous, where the base salary was in the high $30,000s.

Critical difference

The critical difference between Wallingford and private ambulance companies, Czentnar said, is that the town offers full-time positions that were open to overtime and benefits that private ambulance services don’t have.

That includes more paid time off, health benefits, uniform allowances, and more. The department even pays for recertification every two years, which EMT companies will only sometimes provide.

As a result, they’re rolled into the fire departments and often collaborate with the firefighters. Czentnar said this allows for better response times than in other towns.

“Commercial ambulances, during the day, will be parked in a parking lot that’s strategically located somewhere, commuter parking lot, a shopping center or what have you, in order to serve the area that they’re assigned to. So there’s a lot of differences, especially when you’re going and you’re part of the fire department and you’re also part of the municipality, so it’s not about pay. That’s why we’ve still been getting people, so we’re trying to be competitive and we’re not that far off the mark,” said Czentnar.

Already the chief said he was interviewing with one potential candidate, and would be putting out the revised application soon in hopes of filling the three positions that remain open.

Competition, costs

Smith was skeptical that the benefits offered a significant incentive to EMTs who were looking to come to the town, when a company like Hunter’s Ambulance offers $4/$5 more an hour — which he said is substantial to anyone getting into the EMT field. He added that, to anyone with experience, the benefits were not sufficiently attractive without higher pay to match.

“If you go to Hunter’s, you’re making $4 more an hour or $5 more an hour starting, times 40 hours, that’s $200 off the bat without overtime,” said Smith. “Nowadays, it’s a small world. (EMTs) all talk, and the commercial service makes so much more money. They’re not leaving to come here. And then why (Czentnar) wants to drop, probably, my guess is he wants to try to get the new person because they don’t know any different yet. You get a young kid that’s out of EMT school at 21 years old, it’s like, ‘Oh, OK, $41,000 a year, that’s great money.’”

Several town councilors also still had concerns regarding the EMTs. Reynolds said it was worth having a conversation about raising the pay, or creating opportunities for more affordable housing developments so Wallingford could be more affordable for people in a lower income bracket.

“You shouldn’t spend more than 30 percent of your monthly gross income on rent and then back-calculating into a salary that’s, say, in the $40,000s, you probably wouldn’t be able to live in affordable housing making that little,” Reynolds said. “If you have an issue with recruiting for positions like this and you recognize that the salary is too low to be able to afford to live in the town you want people to live in, then that should be a red flag.”

Reynolds added that it “didn’t make financial sense,” to rely on overtime pay to make up the difference. “We’re spending more hourly on people so that we’re sort of cutting ourselves off at the knees, and on top of that, we’re asking people to work more hours than they’re normally accustomed to, or that they may even want to, and we’re burning them out.”

Opposing views

Republican Councilor Craig Fishbein took issue with removing the employment requirement, believing that it was better to look for those with more experience to serve the town even in spite of the smaller job pool.

“I think it’s to the betterment of public safety if we did have individuals with experience,” he said.

Cervoni, conversely, reaffirmed his support for the municipal EMT service and called it a valuable investment in town, and would continue to support it and its staff going forward as mayor.

“It makes Wallingford a healthier and safer town and it’s a service that during my 14 years on the council, I certainly took the opportunity to support whenever it came before us, and I think we will continue to support it in town.”

Smith was skeptical about the future of the program, believing that the town would return to using firefighter paramedics on ambulance teams once again. He also questioned decisions like the approval for use of a third ambulance for the EMTs that had never once been used by the department, and if the town would remain committed to the expenditures of maintaining a full 18-person EMT team.

“Everything’s changed, gone back, changed, gone back,” he said. “And now we’ve changed again. And the system seems to be, as you can see on social media, it’s going backward again. You’re not getting people to apply, we’re lowering our standards. It’s just going to fail, it’s just a matter of when, when do you pull the plug basically? When does it go back to the way it was again for the third time?”


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