CAROLINA BEACH — In less than 10 years the number of volunteers with the Carolina Beach Fire Department(CBFD) has fallen by 50 percent — down from 40 in 2010 to 20 today.
The lack of volunteers, coupled with an increased call volume and increased training requirements, has led to a shortage of staff at the department and a request to add three new full-time positions.
“Staff levels at the Fire Department are inadequate to keep up with the day-to-day services and responses required for our community. Similar to other departments the fire department must periodically reinvent itself to keep up with the changes in the community and changing federal state and local regulations. The Fire Department has 13 FTE (full-time employees) and 20 volunteers along with 40 plus lifeguards in the summertime,” Interim Town Manager Ed Parvin said in the request to the town council.
So what has caused this shortage in staff? According to Parvin, it’s a number of factors.
Volunteer interest fading fast
“In 2010 the Town boasted approximately 40 volunteers that either lived on the island or within close proximity. They typically joined on and stayed for 20+ years! They were a dependable and key component to the success of the department. As the island and dynamics of ours and other Fire Departments across the country have changed so have our abilities to depend on volunteers. In 2015, volunteers had fallen to 35. Today in 2019, our volunteers have dropped to approximately 20,” Parvin wrote in an email.
With the retirement of many long-term volunteers along with the fact that new recruits use the training they receive from the department to move to other full-time positions at other departments, the number of volunteers is dwindling.
In general, training is a good thing, but state safety requirements are getting more strict, Parvin said.
“Training requirements mandated by the state ensure the safety of the community and the first responders. Every volunteer must receive ongoing training in order to start and continue to augment staff. Each volunteer must also work a minimum of two 12-hour shifts each month. They must also attend Monday night trainings. Requirements for actually going to response calls have been eliminated because it has been too difficult for volunteers to manage. With the quick change over in volunteers, it has become extremely taxing on our full-time staff to keep up required entry-level qualifications and successfully find ways to get volunteers to response calls,” he wrote.
Increased call volume is also a contributing factor for the need to employ more full-time staff. In 2009-2010 the department responded to 463 calls; in 2018-2019 the CBFD responded to 993 calls.
Town staff is requesting that Town Council approve three additional full-time employees just to meet the minimum requirements of the state.
“We will still need a minimum of 30 plus to manage the work at the fire department so the volunteer program needs to remain. Staff would attempt to keep between 15 and 20 volunteers. The current organizational structure that is dependent on volunteers has become increasingly difficult to maintain due to increase call volumes, decline in volunteer force and the requirements and amount of training involved in volunteering,” Parvin said.
Hiring part-time employees is also an option but there are some concerns with this route.
” … There will be inherent issues with retention, scheduling, and competing with their full-time employer, typically you have to utilize full-time firefighters from neighboring departments who are seeking off duty work,” he said.
So what about overtime? Well, since staff is already facing a shortage, overtime would only be a temporary solution to a bigger problem Parvin said.
“Our members are already having to cover events, vacations, sick and backfilling for injuries. This alone creates worker fatigue and quality of life for staff at home. Excess overtime is only a temporary fix for a long-term issue. Additional overtime, though might be welcomed early on would only lead to employee burn out and potentially more injuries and critical mistakes,” he wrote.
The Town Council will meet on Tuesday, Aug 13, to decide on the request to roll over more than $50,000 to help fund the positions.
The official request is to, “Approve the grant match requested for roll over tonight to Fiscal year 2019-20 for $52,500. Successfully obtaining the grant would result in the $52,500 going back into the general fund balance. If we are not successfully awarded the grant then the $52,500 along with the existing matching grant money in the current budget will be utilized to hire the additional 3 firefighters.”
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