Local officials say that over the last six weeks, three experienced paramedics with the Dawson County Fire Department have left their jobs to take higher-paying positions with departments in surrounding counties.
And while losing three employees might not be a problem in some areas of government, Dawson County Fire Chief Danny Thompson says that the issue of recruitment and retention for small rural counties is a “vicious cycle” that has lasting effects on the county’s budget and on public safety.
Speaking to the Dawson County News following a Board of Commissioners meeting last week, Thompson said the problem facing his department is one that is being played out all across the country, as departments face a shortage of trained paramedics and EMTs while competing with large wealthy counties and private services for applicants.
Thompson explained that his department has had openings for full-time paramedics for years that have never been filled, which he attributes to the $5,000 to $15,000 differences in pay that applicants can realize by seeking positions just a short drive from Dawson County.
“These are all counties that border us; your employees aren’t driving an hour away, they’re driving another 10 or 15 minutes once every third day,” he said.
Currently, the county has 18 paramedics and about 12 more supervisor-level employees that are qualified as paramedics, Thompson said. But on the other side of the coin, Dawson County has 13 unfilled positions for full-time and part-time paramedics.
And in the last six months, he said that the county has only received one application for a full-time position.
“We’ve been advertising for over three years, full-time firefighter-paramedics. That advertising is continuous and open until filled, and we have never filled it,” he told the Dawson County Board of Commissioners on Thursday night.
At a minimum, all firefighters in Dawson County are dual trained as firefighter/EMTs, Thompson said. Which is a cost-saving technique that allows the department to use the same employee for a variety of different emergency situations.
But despite that high training standard that is expected of local first responders, Dawson County pays firefighter/paramedics only $16.27 per hour, nearly $3 less per hour than the fire department in neighboring Lumpkin County, and much less than another neighbor, Hall County, which recently raised it’s paramedic pay to more than $22 per hour and awarded medical workers a hefty bonus.
They also have to contend with private ambulance companies and hospitals, Thompson said, which both snap up candidates and offer them annual salaries upward of $70,000 and fewer responsibilities than county emergency medical services.
“This is a national issue, but you are in it at a local level because we’re in a very competitive market out there,” he added. “To be able to keep and retain our people, we’ve got to be competitive.”
Thompson told the board that due to the disparity in pay rates between north Georgia counties, Dawson County’s losses are being compounded by attrition, when firefighter/paramedics or firefighter/EMTs come to Dawson County to start out and then leave for other departments, taking the county’s investment in training with them.
“Which is problematic for us, because that experience is very hard for us to replace,” Thompson said.
Before local first responders even step foot into the field, the county invests more than $12,000 into them between time, training and equipment, Thompson said. When those employees turn around and move to another department, the county then has to make the same investment in another recruit.
“As your chief, I’m obligated to tell you that we’re losing employees, and it’s impacting service delivery,” Thompson told the board.
Solutions to the problem
After breaking down the harsh reality of the situation to the board, Thompson presented three possible options to attack the department’s problems with recruitment and employee retention.
Right off the top, Thompson said that they would like $15,000 to be added to the department’s EMS training budget, to offer $5,000 educational incentives for potential paramedic candidates.
Thompson said that the funding would allow current county EMTs who don’t have the money to attend paramedic school to do so on the county’s dime, while also locking them into a two-year contract with the department to ensure that they stay employed locally.
This measure would allow the department to grow from within, using employees that they already know and have a relationship with, he said.
“It’s very obvious that we’re not getting flooded at the door from outside with applications, so we’ve got to try to do something about growing from within,” Dawson County Board of Commissioners Chairman Billy Thurmond said. “And the county used to do that …. I’m an example.”
But the training funding would need to be only one piece of the puzzle Thompson said, explaining that the funding would have to be paired with a pay raise that would put starting firefighter/paramedic salaries closer to those offered in surrounding areas.
Thompson recommended a “targeted approach” option to the board, which would give medics who ride in the county’s ambulances a $2 per hour stipend, while they are working with the medical unit.
With this option, about four employees per day would be eligible for the $2 per hour pay raise, costing the county an additional $75,500 per year.
A second option, Thompson said, would be to give county paramedics a 10% raise across the board, bringing the starting salary up to about $17.90 and costing the county $153,470.78 additional annually.
“That’s a targeted approach again, to offset those medics, to make it more competitive so your fire medics will stop leaving Dawson County,” he said.
The last option, Thompson said, would be to give Dawson County paramedics an annual bonus; $8,000 for full-time paramedics and $4,000 for part-time paramedics. This option would cost the county $207,276 annually.
Following Thompson’s presentation, District 3 Commissioner Tim Satterfield said he would rather see the county give all paramedics a competitive raise toward the $19-per-hour mark.
“Lumpkin is at 19, we’re at 16, that’s a big difference,” Satterfield said. “Let’s quit nickel-and-dime-ing it and get it to $19.”
Thompson said to raise the starting paramedic salary to $19 per hour, Dawson County would need to give a raise of about 18%, an action that would raise the county budget by about $300,000.
“I wanted to give you, the board, options, to do exactly what you all have done this evening, and that’s discuss it,” he said. “What would benefit the employees more, obviously, moving to the $19-per-hour would benefit the employees more day in and day out, but as your chief and as a citizen I’m mindful of the checkbook.”
“But public safety is an investment and every citizen in this county and every visitor to this county deserves to have a level of safety,” he added.
The presentation on Thursday night was closed without any action taken by the board, but Thompson later told the DCN that the matter would likely be brought up again at the board’s meeting in mid-April.