BELOIT, Wis. - The Beloit Fire Department is facing a shortage of firefighters after 12 people retired last year and the city only has enough money to replace nine positions.
“It’s going to put a lot of pressure on the guys that are remaining, but the guys that did leave were all mentors, and they trained us well, and we’re up for the task,” said Scott Smith, a Beloit fire captain and president of Beloit Professional Firefighters Local #583.
Smith said many of the men who retired all started around the same time.
“When I started, I came on with 11 guys all within 10 months. So it stands to reason that we’re all going to be reaching retirement age right around the same time,” he said.
Fire Chief Bradley Liggett said the people who retired did so to preserve their benefits because the department’s contract expired at the end of 2017.
“That’s kind of the natural progression of things when there’s an expectation of contract changes,” Liggett said. “Folks will make that choice for their family and their personal well-being to retire under the benefit package that they’re currently under.”
Beloit City Manager Lori Luther said the city is preparing for more vacancies in the future. According to a fire department Facebook post, more than 60 percent of the department could retire in the next five years.
"We are not immune to an aging workforce lke many other area employers, but it should be noted that while we have a number of firefighters eligible for retirement that does not mean that we have received formal notices of retirement," Luther said in an email. "While we are grateful for the service, experience and sacrifice our most tenured fire department employees have given our community, the City is also planning for the future. We are actively recruiting, training and developing our firefighters and paramedics so we can continue to provide a safe and healthy community."
Smith said the department is losing three positions because its Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant ends in April. He said the grant provided the salaries and benefits for the three positions for two years. However, a change in the rules means the city now has to match funds from the grant and be able to provide a year of salary without help. The loss brings the total number of firefighters down to 58 instead of 61.
“The city just could not come up with the money at this time,” Smith said. “With the retirements that we have, it was an easy transition to do it through attrition, rather than having to lay people off.”
Liggett said the department will use funds from the grant to pay people overtime to fill the spots left open by retirement until it expires in April.
Smith said with the elimination of those three positions, it puts the department under the National Fire Protection Association’s best practices standard to maintain a minimum of 15 people available to respond to a structure fire. He said the department will now only have 14 people available.
“There are 22 essential tasks that need to be done within the first couple minutes of the first arriving engine companies in order for the outcome to end successfully and safely,” Smith said. “When you start cutting corners, and you start reducing staff, you have to double up tasks. You have to eliminate tasks. You have to skip over tasks, and that’s when mistakes happen.”
He said there are no penalties for being below the standard, but the standard is there for a reason.
“The problem is, the number of times we’re depleting all of our resources and our neighboring resources has gone from weekly to daily,” Smith said. “Eventually, it stands to reason that eventually something bad is going to happen.”
Smith said the department will be depending more on mutual aid from neighboring fire departments to make up for the fewer firefighters.
Liggett said the department is in the process of hiring an assistant chief, deputy chief and seven firefighters. He said there’s a national search for the two officer positions, and he’s had more than 100 candidates apply for the firefighter positions. Liggett said he hopes to have offers made to everyone by the end of January.
“The difficulty when we have a huge change like what we’re experiencing this month is that training gap is compressed, so you don’t have much time to fill that gap, and the learning curve is pretty high,” Liggett said.
He said the department will help the new hires adjust through mentorship and talking through scenarios together.
“One of the best things about our job from a learning perspective is storytelling. Whether it’s a funny story, a serious story or a learning experience from a critical incident, those stories are share all the time,” Liggett said. “There’s two purposes. One is learning and two is debriefing and wellness of the firefighter. If we don’t do those things, one, we’re not passing on the knowledge and then we’re also not taking care of each other when it comes to that stress.”
Smith said the department is looking at ways to cut costs to be able to hire more firefighters.
“We’re always looking for ways to save money, increase revenues,” he said. “Our local has entered into a partnership with a company out of Texas, which specializes in reducing health insurance costs. Our preliminary projections are that we could save anywhere from $1-3 million in our health insurance funds.”
In the meantime, he said, the department is taking it one day at a time.
“We’re going to continue to work and find ways to save money and to get us to where we need to be so we can provide the service that the citizens of Beloit deserve,” Smith said.
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