In the past year, staffing shortages have made it increasingly common to see firefighters and emergency medical services workers log more than 100 hours in overtime each month.
Gary Poirier, director of human resources with Pender County EMS and Fire, said some are occasionally working 100-hour weeks.
“It’s really causing a strain,” he said. “You can do that day in and day out for only so long.”
A higher-than-normal number of vacancies at some area fire and rescue agencies — for COVID-19 and non-COVID-related reasons — have left staff stressed and overworked, and recruitment has proved challenging.
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Until about a year ago, Poirier said, the department enjoyed close to full employment, but staffing for both fire and emergency medical services in the county is “a real issue right now.”
The fire department currently has 14 unfilled positions. With a staff of about 84, he said, “that’s a big chunk.” EMS is down 8 positions, with a staff of just 48.
“It hurts,” he said. “That’s a big hit.”
To compensate, Poirier said some first responders are working more than 24 hours at a time and many are logging overtime to fill shifts.
“They’re just beat,” Poirier said. “It wears on them and their families and everyone they’re associated with.”
What’s causing the vacancies?
It’s a trend that’s being seen at fire departments across the area and state, according to Interim Fire Chief Steve Mason with the Wilmington Fire Department.
Mason said the Wilmington Fire Department currently has 10 firefighter vacancies – a loss that the department has become acclimated to over the past few years. Mason said the department’s seen consistent turnover in recent years, with staff retiring, leaving public safety, or seeking more money and promotional opportunities in the surrounding area with the growth of Brunswick and Pender counties.
“It’s very, very rare that we ever get to full capacity or full staffing, so that’s just a challenge that we’ve had long before COVID was a thing,” Mason said.
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With 226 positions in the department, 190 are firefighter positions.
While the department is used to working with a few unfilled positions, Mason said the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the strain on staff as they work to balance existing vacancies with short-term COVID-19-related absences.
The department’s firefighter recruit academy graduated 20 recruits in November and opened this month for applications. Mason said the department hopes to hire between 16 and 20 recruits following the six-month academy, which will address current vacancies and, hopefully, any more that occur in the meantime.
Jennifer Smith, battalion chief with New Hanover County Fire and Rescue, said the department currently has four firefighter vacancies. With about 36 emergency response staff working daily, those four vacancies are noticeable during each of the department’s three daily shifts.
“It’s impactful, but not negatively impactful yet,” she said.
While that number of vacancies is a bit higher than normal, Smith said staff sees “an end in sight” with four apprentices set to fill those positions at the end of February.
As for Leland…
While some agencies are struggling to fill vacant positions, Leland Fire Rescue is growing its force to keep up with the growth of the town.
According to Fire Chief Chris Langlois, Leland Fire Rescue is currently fully staffed. In its fiscal year 2021-22 budget, the town funded an additional three firefighter positions, and Langlois said those new hires are set to begin next month.
With the addition of those three positions, the department’s staff will total 48 full-time positions.
“The Town of Leland, and this whole area, is just booming so much that we’re trying to keep up with that growth,” he said.
Recruitment and retention have proven to be more difficult in recent years as well, Poirier said. The department recently hired its newest fire chief and, in years past, would have expected to see around 300 applicants for the job. The listing yielded less than 100, he said.
“Recruitment isn’t what it used to be,” he said.
While more and more staff leave public safety to retire or seek more regular hours in the corporate world or private business, Poirier said he’s also seeing fewer young people take part in training academies to fill the void.
In addition to opening the recruit academy, Mason said the department is working to address turnover and retention by increasing loyalty and pride in the department so newly graduated recruits will be less likely to want to go elsewhere.
When recruiting new firefighters, Langlois said he looks for candidates with character and values that would best fit the department, in hopes of cultivating a culture that would lead to higher retention and less turnover.
“We can always teach them or add to their skills… but we try to find those people that fit our culture and bring them on,” he said.
Smith said New Hanover County Fire Rescue also opened firefighter recruitment this month, in hopes of building a reserve so they’re ready when future vacancies occur.
In an effort to excite young firefighters, Poirier said the department has enhanced its training program and opened a new training facility. They’re also working with local colleges for recruitment opportunities.
“We need to snag them early right now,” he said.