Fayetteville Fire Chief Mike Hill has been hoping attrition at his perpetually understaffed department would slow down.
“(H)ope’s not a strategy,” Hill told the City Council last month, “and it’s not showed any signs of slowing down yet.”
The department — with more than 350 employees working at 17 fire stations throughout Fayetteville — has struggled to fill positions for the past two years, said Hill, who has addressed the council twice recently. The department lost about 30 firefighters in the first half of this year and has 25 operational vacancies.
Seventeen new academy graduates will join the department in October as entry-level firefighters, and nine certified firefighters have been hired with secondary recruiting efforts. But Hill describes the high attrition rate as a national crisis that has left local fire departments “poaching” each other’s staff.
“They're coming after our certified firefighters,” Hill said, referring to other departments. “We're cannibalizing each other.”
Although Hill said the staff shortages mean the “urgency is there” to improve conditions, he told CityView his department is still able to provide adequate services.
“I have no concerns about the level of protection for the community — it's not suffered,” Hill said. “That's always a threat if this cycle continues, but that's not what keeps me up at night.”
Fire protection accounts for a relatively small percentage of the call volume for the department, which totalled 13,591 separate responses for the first half of this year. Fire calls made up 7% of those, while EMS and rescue made up 68%. The rest could be attributed to severe weather, service calls, hazardous conditions (no fire), “good intent” calls and false alarms.
The average response time for these calls was just over 7 minutes for the first half of this year. That’s faster than the response times for the same timeframe in 2021 (7:32) and 2022 (7:39).
Fayetteville firefighters responded to 682 fire calls during the first half of this year, with structure fires accounting for 153 of these. Of fires the department responded to, 61.45% were confined to one room and 26.79% started in a kitchen. Fires led to 15 civilian injuries, one civilian fire death and three firefighter injuries.
Based on exit interviews done within his department, Hill said about 65% of firefighters who leave do so to take higher-salary jobs with better benefits either at other departments or outside public firefighting. He said Fort Liberty attracts the highest number of firefighters who continue in the line of work elsewhere.
“We no longer refer to these as our peer agencies,” Hill said. “These are our competitors. We're going after the same people.”
While Fayetteville’s fire department is the sixth-largest in the state, Hill said his firefighters earn less than the average salaries paid by the state’s 13 largest departments. Average entry-level salaries among those: $45,000, he said, with certified firefighters averaging $48,000, supervisors earning $75,000 and deputy chiefs making $105,000.
Within his own department, the numbers are lower: $40,000 for an entry-level firefighter, $42,000 for certified firefighters and supervisors and deputy chief earning $65,000 and $93,000, respectively.
Firefighters here don’t receive retiree health insurance or longevity pay like those in some other departments, something City Manager Douglas Hewett has told the council it should consider in the city’s next budget cycle.
Hill said restoring retiree benefits could go a long way in attracting more employees, and he plans to advocate for them in the 2024 fiscal budget.
“If we want to remain an employer of choice, we've got to offer competitive pay and we've got to offer competitive benefits,” Hill said. “Through the years, like a lot of municipalities, Fayetteville has cut some things back. We've removed access to retiree health insurance for our employees. We've cut out longevity pay. And some other departments haven't done that, so they look more attractive.”
Ronnie Willet, deputy chief of the department's Human Resources and Training Division, said multiple factors have contributed to the high attrition rate. Among them: the amount of training Fayetteville firefighters get — a cumulative 21,825 hours of training across 17 areas in the first three months of 2023 alone — which makes them desirable candidates for other fire departments as well.
“If you want to know why our firefighters are so in demand, it's because they are highly trained, they are highly dedicated, and they are professionally developed,” Willet told the City Council in late August.
Hill said his department’s fire academy — subsidized by taxpayers — can turn into a “training ground” for other fire departments, with recent graduates choosing to work in other departments with higher compensation. He thinks investing in better compensation for firefighters would allow the city to save money in the long run.
“But I also know that we're in a vicious cycle where we're hiring firefighters, we're investing in their training, and we're not able to retain them,” Hill said. “And that's wasting taxpayers money. I don't think that's fair.”
Despite the Fire Department’s heightened recruitment efforts, the constant attrition means the shortage may worsen again by the end of the year. Hill said the department is not opening applications for new employees until January, and those hires will not start until fall of that year after they have gone through the six-month training academy that starts in May.
“They won't actually get on a firetruck until sometime the following fall,” Hill said. “It takes that long to get them trained and ready.”
Hill said he is hoping to hire more certified firefighters next year before the new recruits come on board. He’d made recommendations to improve firefighter compensation for the current year’s fiscal budget, but “unfortunately, they didn’t make it in there.”
The city is facing a budget shortfall because Cumberland County is changing the sales tax redistribution formula as well as recent voter-approved bond packages for infrastructure and other needs, he added. That puts a damper on his funding wishes, he said.
“It's just not the right climate to introduce a huge cost onto the community at this point,” Hill said
He is hoping to include employee compensation recommendations in future budgets and get some more support from council members to keep firefighters from “getting poached” by other local departments. In the meantime, he is working with the City Manager’s Office to come up with a plan to increase employee benefits while “spending money as frugally as we can.”
Hill encourages local community members to consider a career in firefighting here.
“It's still one of the most rewarding careers there is, and we're always looking for really good people,” Hill said. “And if the community would like to learn more about a career in the fire service, please reach out to us.”
For nonemergencies, contact the Fire Department at 910-433-1728 or visit its website to learn more.
Contact Evey Weisblat at email@example.com.