Ala. board considers increasing firefighter-paramedic salaries

Fire Chief Tracy Thornton said Decatur is the only department in the state that does not compensate firefighters for being paramedics

Bayne Hughes
The Decatur Daily, Ala.

DECATUR, Ala. — Decatur Fire & Rescue and the Personnel Board are hoping a $5,000 supplement is an offer that paramedic-trained recruits can't refuse.

With three votes for the plan and one abstention, the Personnel Board voted Thursday to recommend the City Council approve a supplement that would cost the city a minimum of $292,000 per year — including benefits and an anticipated cost-of-living increase beginning in fiscal 2022 — and possibly more if additional paramedics join the department.

Fire Chief Tracy Thornton said Decatur is the only department in the state that runs emergency medical service calls and does not compensate firefighters for being paramedics.

The Fire Department has 37 firefighters with paramedic certification. This includes the fire chief but he would not benefit from the additional money. Another 10 are now ranking officers who do not respond to emergencies on fire trucks.

"We've discussed the need for paramedics," Human Resources Director Richelle Sandlin said. "And, ideally, we'd like to get to a place in the market data where we're paying as much or more in comparison with Huntsville, Madison and Athens."

Thornton said 10 firefighters who were hired at the same time as he was could retire Feb. 1, 2024, and all are trained paramedics. Even if other firefighters began paramedic training immediately, he said, the two and a half years of classwork would not get them certified in time to replace the retiring paramedics. He said the required continuing education to keep a certification is also extensive for paramedics.

The looming retirements mean the city needs to begin pushing to recruit paramedic-trained firefighters, he said.

Chief Financial Officer Kyle Demeester said there are two ways the city could handle the paramedic supplement. It could give a $5,000 annual supplement or a 10% supplement. Both versions would spread the supplement over 12 months.

Demeester said the city can more easily handle the $5,000 supplement, so that's his recommendation. The 10% supplement would also increase the annual cost to the city to $347,000 in fiscal 2022.

However, the 10% supplement is better for the current paramedics because they make more than $50,600, so for them the $5,000 supplement would be less than a 10% increase, he said.

Personnel Board member Suzie Wiley, who abstained during Thursday's vote, said the city shouldn't settle for second class when it comes to pay in comparison to neighboring cities, so she favors the 10% supplement.

"Let us be the biggest and best," Wiley said.

Wiley said they should go ahead with the more expensive option because she knows the Fire Department "will come back in six months needing more."

Demeester and Personnel Board Chairman Harold Gilmore said the city has to balance this proposal with all of the city expenses.

"We have a budget," Gilmore said. "We may want a Mercedes Benz but, when we can only afford a Chevrolet, I buy a Chevrolet."

Sandlin said it would take $7 million to bring every city employee up to the market pay in comparison with surrounding cities.

Demeester pointed out that the $5,000 supplement would put Decatur over Madison, which pays $3,900 to paramedics if funds are available, and Hartselle, which pays a $1,200 supplement per year.

Wiley asked what would happen if Decatur Fire & Rescue didn't have paramedics, and Thornton said the department would have to stop running emergency medical service calls.

"The city would have to depend on the ambulance service," Thornton said. "But that would be a problem right now because the ambulance service we have right now doesn't put enough (ambulances) on the road."

Thornton said he would like to have two paramedics on each truck but he doesn't have enough with 27. The 10 administrative officers who are paramedics fill in when needed, but generally are not the first responders.

Thornton said the one thing he didn't hear during the Personnel Board's discussion of the proposed supplement is his proposal for four additional paid vacation days to help paramedics deal with the trauma of the job, such as watching people die.

"The pay increase and the days off to deal with the PTSD that comes with the job would be a very lucrative offer that would be hard to resist," Thornton said.

Police Chief Nate Allen said firefighters are paid at or above other comparable cities while his police officers are paid at rates below comparable cities.

"We have a 21-year-old carrying a gun who can take someone's life away with one quick decision," Allen said. "We have a lot more liability."

The Personnel Board's recommendation does not include Thornton's proposal for extra vacation days for paramedics.

Demeester said the proposal is in the fiscal 2022 budget that would need City Council approval before Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year. It would then go into effect.


(c)2021 The Decatur Daily

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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