HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - As Horry County Fire Rescue answers more fire and medical calls than ever, the fire chief is looking to continue a high quality of service, while juggling employee retention issues, mandatory overtime and continuing problems with the contractor that HCFR claims provided them with millions of dollars worth of faulty vehicles.
"We're trying to identify what our total costs are, and if there's a way to re-coup our cost. You know, if you work for us for a period of time...is there a way to re-coup our cost? Because we don't want to become the training ground for everybody else, and sometimes that happens," HCFR Chief Joseph Tanner told WMBF News reporter Meredith Helline.
Chief Tanner said he and Horry County officials are researching ways to keep Horry County Fire Rescue graduated recruits long-term, or at least keep them long enough to pay for the cost of putting each of them through the county's firefighter training program. When asked the county's cost to put each recruit through fire training as well as where retention rates stand, Chief Tanner said those aren't numbers he has right now.
As public employees, Chief Tanner said there's no contract keeping firefighters in HCFR for a stated period. However, he's exploring options. "There's a couple of ideas we're looking at…just to see if we make this investment, can't you stay here for a period of time...if we make this investment?"
HCFR receives applicant pools with as many as six hundred applications, or as little as fifty, he said. However, each applicant must meet strict criteria to be considered for hire. Advertising will be expanded regionally this year, and the chief is planning at least one extra fire class to start in June or July. HCFR usually has two graduating fire classes a year.
Chief Tanner said he loses his employees to Myrtle Beach Fire Rescue, nursing school, moving back home after graduation and various other reasons. Despite issues keeping firefighters, HCFR's salaries are higher than other departments in nearby areas. According to Chief Tanner, HCFR offers a starting salary of $34,456. Lt. Jon Evans, spokesman for Myrtle Beach Fire Rescue, said firefighters there start at $32,000. In Conway, Chief Jeremy Carter said a starting salary of $30,848 is offered.
The department graduated 23 firefighters earlier this month, but there are currently 26 vacancies within the department. Resources are being stretched to keep 39 stations staffed. "With our vacancies, we need to get them filled," the chief said.
"When we have that vacancy, it doesn't mean we don't have enough people to respond. It means we are not fully staffed for everybody. But, we keep a minimum staff of people. That's 88 or 90 people a day that must run, and keep our apparatus in service," Chief Tanner explained.
The chief said there are currently about 350 full-time employees within HCFR, and 400 volunteer firefighters. Despite mandatory overtime in place, no firefighter is allowed to work more than 48 hours straight, unless a disaster is taking place.
"They ask if anybody wants to work to fill the vacancy…and they call to see who wants to work, the battalion chief calls to see who wants to work, and if we have to we'll make somebody work mandatorily."
Making employees work mandatory overtime in necessary situations is not unique to the county. For people working overtime, the chief has an answer to keep them from being over-worked.
"We want to move you from a busier area to a slower run area so you have time to take more rest, if you will. That's what we're moving to. We're moving towards that, we'll continue to move towards that. Does it work like that every single day? Absolutely not, but that's our goal."
Overtime costs aren't plaguing only employees, but the county's pocket. According to Horry County spokeswoman Lisa Bourcier, the county budgeted a little less than $580,000 dollars for fire overtime for the year. Year to date, she said over $870,000 dollars has been spent on overtime costs.
The chief said the more people HCFR can hire, the more they can limit overtime expenses.
"It's a large number of people, but it takes that to make this big machine work," he said.
Horry County Fire Rescue recently posted two job listings for firefighter EMTs and firefighter paramedics. View those listings here.