Part time for the long term: Cape fire department hopes to expand force

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Cape Girardeau has hired three new firefighters since passage of a quarter-cent fire sales tax last year. But that still leaves the city at times with barely enough firefighters to effectively fight fires, fire chief Rick Ennis says.

He hopes to tap federal grant money to hire about 15 part-time firefighters at a total annual cost of about $78,000 to boost his department's manpower, adding what would equate to about three full-time positions.

Each part-time firefighter would work an average of 48 hours a month, Ennis said. The part-timers would be paid an hourly wage and receive no benefits under a plan approved recently by the city council.

The grant would extend over five years and require an ever-growing local match until the fifth year when the city would have to pay the entire cost estimated at $78,000 a year, Ennis said. That amounts to a $195,000 local match over the five years, or half of the entire $390,000 grant.

The city would pay 10 percent of the cost the first year, 20 percent for the second year, 50 percent for the third year and 70 percent for the fourth year, he said.

The city's fire sales tax revenue, which will amount to $20 million over the next 10 years. already is earmarked for other expenses, such as building a new fire station and acquiring new firefighting equipment. Half the annual tax revenue is going toward higher salaries in the police department. There's no money left to hire more firefighters without a federal grant, Ennis said.

The city council recently authorized city staff to seek the grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

City officials hope to obtain funding this fall. But the fire chief said there is strong competition for the grant money from the nation's other fire departments.

Ennis said city officials aren't looking for a short-term fix. "We don't want to lay people off in five years," he said. But if tax revenue hasn't grown sufficiently to pay for the firefighters beyond the fifth year of the program, the city could terminate them, Ennis said.

The department currently has 54 firefighters, 18 on each of three shifts. But two of those automatically are on vacation or leave time at any one time, which reduces the shifts to 16 firefighters, the fire chief said.

Often only 15 firefighters are on a 24-hour shift -- one over the minimum staffing level the city needs to effectively fight fires, Ennis said.

That typically amounts to three firefighters per fire truck, he said. The National Fire Protection Association recommends four firefighters per vehicle.

The fire sales tax helped get the department to the minimum staffing level and reduced the amount of overtime firefighters have had to work, the fire chief said. The part-time firefighter plan would allow the department to move beyond the minimum staffing level, Ennis said.

It's important to expand the firefighting staff, particularly as the city continues to grow, he said.

The fire chief hopes to draw part-time firefighters from the ranks of those who battle blazes for area rural volunteer fire departments and from new, inexperienced applicants who would get their basic training in-house from the city's 11 certified fire instructors.

Volunteer firefighters are a resource that has previously been overlooked, Ennis said.

"Many of these people would love an opportunity to pull duty with the Cape Girardeau Fire Department to gain additional experience and earn a little money," he wrote in a memorandum to the city council last month.

The city currently fills openings with firefighters who already have had basic firefighting and emergency medical training. But Ennis said that policy limits the chances for local residents to hire on with the department.

He touts the plan to hire part-time firefighters as a training ground for a pool of applicants who can assume full-time jobs in the department in the future.

"It would be kind of a stepping stone into the department," the fire chief said.

The city, he insisted, isn't looking to replace full-time firefighters with part-time personnel.

The chief hopes the part-time jobs can lead to more full-time positions in the long run. "My ultimate goal is to some day make them full-time positions," he said.

Cape Girardeau firefighter Shawn Morris said he and other full-time firefighters aren't opposed to the hiring plan as long as the part-time positions don't lead to a loss of full-time jobs.

"As far as I'm concerned, I wouldn't have a problem with it," Morris said.

Morris, who is vice president of Cape Girardeau Local 1084 of the International Association of Firefighters, said the association favors the federal grant program.

Fire chiefs of two rural volunteer departments in Cape Girardeau County also like the idea.

Delta Fire Chief Alvin Frank Jr. said it could provide added training and experience for some of his firefighters. Frank said he doesn't believe Cape Girardeau's hiring plan would leave volunteer departments short-handed.

If a volunteer firefighter gets hired to work part time for the Cape Girardeau Fire Department, he wouldn't be able to respond to a rural fire while he is on duty with the city. But Frank said that's no different than businesses that don't let volunteer firefighters leave their day jobs to fight fires.

Whitewater fire chief Garry Moore said the Cape Girardeau Fire Department wouldn't deplete one rural fire department but rather would hire firefighters from several different rural departments.

Moore said part-time jobs with the Cape Girardeau Fire Department would provide added experience that could only help his department in fighting fires.

Moore said he would end up with more seasoned firefighters. "The more calls a firefighter goes on, the more experience he gets," Moore said. "If I could figure out a way to do it, I'd ship all my guys to Cape and let them train."

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123


BY THE NUMBERS

3, number of firefighters hired after the quarter-cent fire sales tax.

15, number of part-time firefighters department hopes to hire with the help of the grant.

48, hours per month that would push the fire department beyond the minimum staff.

78,000, local dollars needed annually for the federal grant.

5 number of years the proposed federal grant would last.

10, 20, 50, 70 percentage of grant the city would pay per for the first four years.

54, 16, number of full-time firefighters, number of firefighters on each shift.

11, number of certified fire instructors who could teach new recruits.

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