Fire chief calls for raises to keep firefighters on payroll

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The Augusta Chronicle

AUGUSTA, Ga. — A proposal to boost the salaries of Augusta firefighters will go before the full commission next week after the public safety committee voted Monday to pass the item on consent.

The proposal, drafted by Augusta Fire Chief Chris James, calls for pay increases out of fear the department will continue to lose firefighters to higher-paying agencies, and to some companies in the private sector who seek employees trained in firefighting and emergency medical work.

In a slideshow attached to Mon­day’s agenda, James said the department has lost 140 employees in less than six years. Only 39 were the result of retirement.

The department’s entry-level firefighters are paid an annual salary of $26,844.48. The fire department is proposing to boost the salaries of new recruits to at least $30,000.

“We’re not losing 10-year employees and 20-year employees,” Commissioner Donnie Smith said after Monday’s meeting. “We’re losing the entry-level, and second- and third-year employees.”

According to the slideshow, it costs about $23,000 to train new recruits. A class of 25 recruits could cost taxpayers as much as $575,000, which is why James said it’s important to find a way to retain employees.

“It takes about 24 weeks to train an employee, so when an employee leaves and we have to find his replacement, he doesn’t go right to work,” he said. “It affects our overtime and it affects the firefighters’ safety since we don’t have enough people to man the apparatus.”

Commissioner Alvin Mason said James’ claims were justified and added that the Augusta Fire De­partment has proved to be a training ground for departments in Columbia and Burke counties.

Since the city is currently in budget negotiations, he said, now is the perfect time to talk about raises.

Some departments, such as the fire department and Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, are priorities, he said.

Mason said he would advise against giving all city employees a raise, however.

“It’s not that other people are less important, but we do know that all jobs are not created equal,” he said. “The sacrifices made in some jobs are quite a bit greater than others, and the loss of personnel is greater as well.”

The proposal, James said, would reduce pay disparities and align pay with rank, which would serve as a morale booster.

Now that the proposal is in the hands of the full commission, James said he is optimistic.

“I’ll always say that our firefighters are our No. 1 resource,” he said. “We have to make sure that we take care of that No. 1 resource. There’s hope that we can correct this issue.”

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