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Recruitment, Retention Equals Good Response Times

Dave Farrell
Chief, PVFPD

How would you like to run a small business consisting of 12 highly skilled employee positions, while at the same time handling the loss of 19 employees over the past five years? What if only five of these skilled employees were retained during those five years?

This is the challenge that Penn Valley Fire Chief Don Wagner has been forced to deal with. Each of the 19 former employees has gone to other fire agencies for better pay and benefits. Based on exit interviews, each of these employees would have preferred to remain with Penn Valley Fire.

The current Penn Valley Fire salary schedule for a firefighter starts at $15.28/hour and tops at $17.74/hour. A firefighter / paramedic receives an additional $3/hour stipend. A firefighter who is single gets full health coverage; however a firefighter with a wife and one or more children has to pay $820.51 per pay period above the base health care coverage allocation.

We typically lose firefighters to Roseville ($21.43 to $26.77 with full medical) and Sac Metro ($20.98 to $28.02, with full medical), as two examples.

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What is involved in replacing a firefighter/EMT or firefighter/paramedic? First, there is the cost of advertising the position. Applicants must take a standard firefighters exam (cost to District: $100), followed by an extensive interview with the Fire Chief and other officers. Paramedic applicants must pass successfully an involved series of medical scenarios supervised by two paramedics on overtime status. Applicants must then pass a rigid physical agility test.

Once these steps are completed, the applicant goes through a lengthy background investigation, handled by an outside agency. This consists of a 25-page questionnaire, a survey of criminal records in counties the applicant has lived in, contact of previous employers, and interviewing references and others associated with the applicant. This process can take over a month.

Still with me? Once an applicant is offered a position, the process is far from over. The applicant goes through a month-long Field Training Orientation, becoming familiar with the various District protocols and equipment, and becoming familiar with the geography of the District. More importantly, during this time a determination is made regarding whether this individual will be a good fit with the other employees in the District. This whole process is overseen by an employee on overtime. If the individual makes it through the FTO process, he or she is hired on a one-year probationary status.

When all is said and done, the cost to the District, your District, to replace a firefighter is roughly $10,000. So in the past five years, the District has spent roughly $190,000 in maintaining the staffing level, and being able to respond in a timely fashion to medical emergency or fire calls for service.

To complicate matters, the recruitment of firefighter / paramedics has become a major issue. We are the only fire agency in Western Nevada County with a paramedic on each shift — i.e., a firefighter / paramedic will be responding when you call 911. Other fire agencies throughout the area and beyond are beginning to upgrade their staffing configurations by adding paramedics. The end result is a very sobering shortage of paramedics.

As a recent example, we lost a several paramedics this past summer. Over a period of six months, we received six applications. Five applicants were invited to begin the testing process. Three passed the screening process and were offered positions. Two responded but for a variety of reasons, neither one is working full time.

Fortunately, we had one firefighter/paramedic return after leaving, and one Penn Valley firefighter/EMT completed his paramedic certification.

Locally, the Grass Valley Fire Department has been trying to recruit paramedics for well over a year with no success. In more affluent areas of the state, fire agencies offer signing bonuses in the thousands of dollars for paramedics.

The proposed increase in the Fire Repression Assessment will address a number of key recruitment and retention issues: additional staffing on each shift, expansion of the salary schedule to include an additional step, enhanced medical coverage for firefighters with families and other costs associated with expanding the staffing level. We have to do this to fully staff the fire department, retain our employees and recruit quality applicants when there are vacancies.

Additionally, funds will be allocated to the equipment reserve, which is the account used to replace fire engines and ambulances on a 12- to 15-year cycle. A full, well-trained staff equals good response times when you are in need of assistance for a medical issue, a fire or other emergency.


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