Formerly all-volunteer Texas FD adds first paid FF-EMTs
The four firefighter-EMTs were hired to help the department maintain consistent round-the-clock staffing
Jeff B. Flinn
San Antonio Express-News
WINDCREST, Texas — For the first time in its existence, the Windcrest Fire Department is now manned by paid firefighters.
Four firefighter/EMTs were hired and began shifts last week following a long, drawn-out effort to provide the city with dependable round-the-clock staffing.
Fire Chief Dan Kramer last month told City Council that the department was ready to enlist its first four paid firefighters into its previously all-volunteer department.
“We have four (firefighters) that have been moved along after the preliminary backgrounds and interview process,” Kramer told council at an Aug. 17 meeting. “My hope is to have all four eligible and ready to start on Sept. 7.”
Out of six applicants, the department decided to initiate the process with four of them, he said. “We’ve already opened another process now that will conduct a second hiring process and fill those two additional spots.”
All four of the hired firefighters were members of the volunteer fire staff, he said. Two were placed on ‘A’ shift, and one each on ‘B’ and ‘C’ shifts, where they will continue to work side-by-side with remaining volunteer staff.
Commercial development along Eisenhauer Road made the move to a paid staff a necessity.
“We created several different staffing models,” Kramer said. “It’s terrifying, the idea of having someone rolling to a fire on Eisenhauer by themselves.”
He said the idea of paid firefighters was a topic of discussion even when he arrived as chief in March of 2019.
“It was February or March (2020) when we brought the conversation to council” and began to project staffing numbers, he said. But the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic brought the hiring process to a halt. The city needed to weigh the impact of the pandemic on city sales tax, city revenue, and projected budgeting before proceeding with the creation of any new positions.
“We reopened the process in June, interviewing and testing the six applicants. And the process has been reopened right now for the additional two positions,” the chief said.
With the city’s rich and proud history of supporting its all-volunteer staff, some among the administration and council expected rumblings of dissatisfaction from Windcrest residents. That, he said, never materialized.
“We had minimal pushback from the community about the hirings,” he said. He said he invited any disgruntled residents to the municipal building, where the fire station and its fire bays are located, and explained the necessity for reliable response to emergency situations.
“A lot of the time, the fact we have an assistant fire chief who lives right near the station … meant we’ve always had someone show up on duty,” Kramer said. “Now, we’re guaranteed to be able to roll.”
The additional two positions, once any applicants are vetted and staffed, will be added to the ‘B’ and ‘C’ shifts to bring the paid staff to two on each shift.
“Assuming everything goes well, I’d expect to have them in place by early-to-mid-November.,” he added. The firefighters will work a 48-hour on, 96-hour off shift, with built-in overtime as part of the pay structure.
He said the city can apply for a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that helps agencies build their staffs.
According to FEMA’s website, SAFER grants “provide funding directly to fire departments and volunteer firefighter interest organizations to help them increase or maintain the number of trained, ‘front line’ firefighters available in their communities.”
Under SAFER, FEMA pays 90 percent of the cost of a firefighter’s first-year salary, 90 percent the second year, and 30 percent the third year. The participating city is responsible for the remainder, and then must take the entire pay package beginning in the fourth year.
Kramer said the ideal situation would be to eventually build the city’s shifts to “to a full crew, full being four paid firefighters … and SAFER would be a contributor to that growth, as we respond to the city’s continued growth.”
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