, Many fire departments struggle to retain part-time workers – News – Holland Sentinel

Like many fire departments across the United States, communities in West Michigan are feeling the burden of being understaffed as they struggle to retain their network of paid part-time firefighters.

The city of Holland runs on a mix of paid part-time and full-time firefighters, with 21 full-time staff and the capacity for 30 part-time workers. According to Chris Tinney, fire services captain for the city of Holland, they’ve always been able to fill that quota, or at least come close to it. But lately, there’s been some difficulties.

“We’re challenged right now,” Tinney said. “Up to about the last five years, we’d be one or two down, but we’ve reached a point now where we’re finding it very difficult to increase that number. There’s a lot of different variables at play here.”

Currently, Holland employs 18 paid-on-call firefighters. Tinney says the strict training requirements that accompany the job can catch some newer recruits by surprise, making some people question their time commitment to the profession and causing retention rates to slip.

There’s also the competition departments face when balancing the expectations of their firefighters’ versus other employers. Part-time firefighters must be able to leave their day job at a moment’s notice to be able to respond to a call, and in today’s world, Tinney says that’s just not practical for a lot of people.

“I think something’s changed in the ability to commit,” he said. “There’s a lot of activity in people’s lives, and it’s hard to balance family in all that.”

Paid part-time firefighters account for about 65 percent of all firefighters in the United States. The majority of fire departments in the country rely on the services and availability of part-time workers, and many don’t even employ full-time firefighters at all.

In the city of Zeeland, the fire department is made up entirely of part-time employees, with the exception of Ross Tibbets, the department’s first full-time fire chief.

“Finding the balance of meeting the expectations of the job and the prioritization of life can be difficult,” said Tibbets. “The requirements continue to go up, and as they increase, there are many people out there who have given it up.”

A paid-on-call system might make more sense financially, Tibbets says, but it has its drawbacks.

“The downside is that when we do need them, we can’t guarantee how many will be there.”

To try to solve the problem of reliability in the face of these recent trends, many departments are considering hiring more full-time firefighters. But while hiring more helps the city meet the needs of its people, the added cost can be a barrier, especially for smaller departments.

“I started out as a paid-on-call firefighter many years ago, and there’s something intrinsic about the job,” Tinney said. “At that time, I didn’t do it for the money, and I think that’s still the case for a lot of people.”

As call volumes continue to increase, cities like Zeeland are considering alternatives to their current model. But according to Tibbets, the solution won’t be a simple one.

“Ultimately, a community needs to figure out the level of service they want to provide,” Tibbets said. “But they have to do so in a way that makes sense financially. It’s hard to say the direction because there are other challenges other than money and an expected level of service, but it’s about providing that balance of the best (service) you can with the money that’s available. How do you put a value on the people that are keeping your cities safe?”

— Contact reporter Devin Dely at ddely@hollandsentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @dely_devin.

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