By Kevin Granberg
The News Herald
PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. — Panama City Beach officials are looking for 18 people to fill new firefighting positions at the city's new $3 million fire station near Nautilus Street.
Firefighter Colton Conrad, who has been employed with Panama City Beach for three years, said it's a tough job, but the payoff is worth it.
“I do enjoy being a part of a work family that cares for each other like their own family,” Conrad said. “The best part, though, is knowing that you've got a chance to make a difference in somebody's life every time you step on and off a truck. That's the real reason I wanted to be a firefighter.”
In May, the Beach city council voted to update its compensation plan to provide a 5 percent pay increase to public safety officials. First responders were on the receiving end of that increase. The base salary for a firefighter now is about $34,000, plus incentives if they are a paramedic or an experienced firefighter, Couch said. Department wide, the salary range is $32,086 to $52,942 for firefighters; $40,951 to $67,569 for a firefighter EMT; and $57,622 to $97,957 for a fire captain.
Plus, said Fire Chief Larry Couch said, there is room for advancement.
Couch said recruitment for firefighters is low across the state, but especially in the Panhandle, as many young adults move to South Florida for higher wages. However, he said there is still a high level of interest for those looking to tap into the profession.
“People still are interested in being a firefighter. It remains a great profession,” he said. “After 9-11, everyone wanted to be a firefighter or police officer. There was great patriotism in our country, and these first responder jobs were very attractive. Those about to enter the workforce were not born yet or were very young during that time so they don't have that memory.”
Local first responders do try to expose children to the duties of police and fire officials, Couch said, allowing them to witness the significance of emergency careers at a young age. Anthony Maiko got a chance to experience some of the roles first responders play by doing ride-alongs with fire officials during his teen years.
“I wanted to do something in the military that had to do with medical,” Maiko said in a city news release. “I started coming down here to the station, and they let me go on calls and taught me how to do blood pressure. I felt such a brotherhood. I played football and wrestled in high school, and this just felt like the same kind of team—and it was physical.”
Couch said Panama City Beach hasn't struggled as much as other cities when firefighters, but the upcoming need is great.
“We are looking at a huge hiring coming up, possibly beginning at the end of this year, with our new first station being constructed next year,” he said. “It is the first time in a long time we have had to recruit for 18 firefighters.”
The city currently employs 38 firefighters, and on average, they tend to stay with the city for one to two decades, Couch said, though some do transfer to other departments or retire. Some even come to Panama City Beach with 10 or more years of firefighting experience.
“Usually when someone gets into fire service, they do not leave the profession,” he said. “They love what they do and helping people is a big part of that. They receive instant on-the-job rewards. I think you will find that 10-20 years is about the same at other fire departments.”
In 2017, Panama City Beach's two fire stations responded to over 4,300 calls, which included structural fires, chemical spills, animal rescues and more, according to a news release.
The Beach departments also provide Advanced Life Support services, which Couch said enables the city to have even better trained firefighters. All new firefighters have one year to earn an EMT certificate, and Couch said the department will hire a paramedic or EMT without fire training. The EMT would have one year to complete firefighter training.
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