Ala. FD officials say paramedic pay raises needed to combat shortage

Decatur Fire & Rescue officials said the agency may need to stop responding to medical calls if the city does not take action to recruit and retain more medics


Bayne Hughes
The Decatur Daily, Ala.

DECATUR, Ala. — Decatur Fire & Rescue officials said the department may have to stop making medical calls if the city doesn't fund pay increases for paramedics, and that looming retirements will leave it short-staffed.

Fire Chief Tracy Thornton and Battalion Chief Chris Phillips told the Personnel Board last week that the 116-member department could soon lose as many as 26 people — 10 this year and 16 in 2024 — to retirement.

They proposed over-hiring firefighters in the next three years, creating a new job classification that pays paramedics more than other firefighters and giving paramedics a "mental health day" off.

"If we don't do something, we're going to see decreased care for our citizens," Phillips said.

Thornton said losing so many firefighters would make it difficult to properly staff the city's eight fire stations, especially if a new fire station is built in Decatur's annexed area in Limestone County. He estimated 30 employees would be needed for a new station.

A firefighter can retire with full retirement pay after 25 years. Of the 10 who complete 25 years with the department this year, eight are lieutenants, one is a driver and the other is a firefighter, Thornton said. He added that 10 of the 16 who could retire in three years are paramedics.

Phillips said a high number of firefighters will attain retirement eligibility at the same time because then-Chief William Lewis added the 10 in 1996 so the department could start handling emergency medical services responses. Previously, the department responded only to fire calls.

The department added 16 firefighters, including Thornton, in 1999 when Fire Station 8 on Indian Hills Road opened, the chief said.

They did not have an estimate on how much it would cost the city to over-hire because they did not know how many extra firefighters should be hired. Thornton said he needs to hire at least six this year, and it takes 12 weeks for a new hire to complete firefighter training at the Alabama Fire College, which has a center in Decatur.

Many of those who plan to retire are trained paramedics, but there's a national paramedic shortage. Decatur's paramedic pay is lower on average than other fire departments in the state, Phillips said.

All new Decatur firefighters, including those licensed as paramedics, start at $37,286 annually, and there's not a separate pay classification or bonus for being a paramedic. The average paramedic pay in the United States is $45,000 a year, Phillips said.

Thornton said the shortage of paramedics could force his department to stop providing EMS response.

The two Fire & Rescue leaders proposed that starting pay for firefighters who are licensed paramedics go to $41,157, a 9.4% increase over a firefighter's starting pay without a paramedic license. Proposed pay increases for other ranks with a paramedic's license would be about 9.4%, except a lieutenant would jump 13.77% to $52,684 as a trained paramedic.

Phillips said the new job classification would cost the city about $280,000 annually and likely would not increase each year at the current staffing level.

The chief said the additional cost of the classification wouldn't increase annually because those retiring make more at the end of their career than the new hires.

The city could offer a bonus instead of the increased salary for being a paramedic, but Phillips said most firefighters won't view bonus pay as seriously. He said a firefighter would be more likely to relinquish the stressful licensed paramedic's duties if a bonus is the pay incentive. A bonus is not included as part of retirement pay calculations.

If facing a demotion in pay grade, "most will think twice before they give up their license," Phillips said.

Thornton said it would require an administrative change for the Human Resources Department to adjust the pay and classification of any firefighter who drops his paramedic license if a new classification is created, but HR Director Richelle Sandlin said the department could handle it.

The chief said he prefers hiring the personnel first and then letting them go through paramedic classes, with the city paying for their college tuition, rather than hiring paramedics who are already trained.

Earning a paramedic license takes about three years because the person has to schedule classes around a work schedule, Thornton said.

Thornton said Decatur would be the only fire department in the state to offer a mental health day so this could be attractive to prospective hires. This would help a paramedic deal with stress and avoid the post-traumatic stress disorder that sometimes comes with the job, he said.

Personnel Board Chairman Harold Gilmore said Phillips and Thornton made a good case. The board then voted to recommend the proposals.

Mayor Tab Bowling said the city would have to find the money in the budget, and Finance Manager Kyle Demeester added that it would now be up to the City Council to support the proposals.

"The council probably needs to have this conversation with y'all," Demeester said to Thornton and Phillips.

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(c)2021 The Decatur Daily (Decatur, Ala.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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