By Eugene Curtin
The Bellevue Leader
BELLEVUE, Neb. — The loss of trained firefighters to larger departments — combined with dwindling recruiting — has the Bellevue Fire Department struggling to keep all four fire stations manned and more dependent on mutual aid pacts to maintain response times.
City leaders say the challenges are caused by tight revenues that hobble full-time firefighter recruitment by requiring a force that is 90 percent part time.
Bellevue Fire Chief Perry Guido said the department’s part-time orientation is a prime reason why many young and newly trained firefighters decamp to larger departments where opportunity is plentiful and pay rates much higher.
The solution, he said, is to offer more full-time positions.
But Bellevue City Administrator Dan Berlowitz said the fire department is unlikely to see relief any time soon.
Berlowitz said the fire department, like all city departments, is living through hard times and much will hinge on what the City Council does concerning tax rates. If the city does not collect higher tax revenues, it will have to manage with current funding, he said, which will mean setting priorities.
He observed that Bellevue voters rejected a half-cent increase in the city’s sales tax last November, a proposal designed to increase spending on infrastructure and other economic development activities.
“If we hire more full-time people, what are we going to do less of if we don’t have additional funds?” he said. “Priority-based budgeting will be critical, because we didn’t get the sales tax approved, so that just means relying on what we’re currently bringing in through sales tax, property tax and other fees.”
Berlowitz said creating a full-time, fully paid fire department is major financial commitment.
“In an ideal world, if we had the money available we would probably move aggressively forward,” he said. “A full-time department would probably mean 60-plus full-time firefighters, so unless some generous individual leaves us a lot of money in their will, it’s going to be a struggle. It all comes down to dollars.”
The Omaha Fire Department is the primary raider of Bellevue’s ranks, although departments in Lincoln, Council Bluffs and even Minnesota have come calling.
Guido said the difficulties were anticipated and are an inevitable part of the transition from a fully volunteer to a fully paid department. He said city leaders are aware of the problem and are beginning to wrestle with challenges posed by the department’s part-time culture.
“We’re not at the panic button yet,” Guido said. “But we’re definitely concerned.”
The Bellevue Volunteer Fire Department became a paid department after the Nebraska Legislature in 2007 enacted a law that forced it to hire a paid chief who would conduct an independent examination of the city’s public safety needs.
Guido, who became that chief, said Bellevue was at a point in 2007 where a paid department had become necessary.
Grand Island, the only Nebraska city of comparable size to Bellevue, had long sustained a paid department.
Guido said the volunteer department’s Futures Committee produced a report in 2006 that concluded it would have to adjust to the city’s rapid growth or the Nebraska Legislature was likely to intervene, a possibility that came to fruition when lawmakers required certain cities to hire a paid fire chief.
But with growth comes growing pains.
“It’s becoming more and more difficult because we’ve become a hotbed training ground for other departments, and we’re losing them very quickly now,” Guido said.
The Bellevue Fire Department lost 40 firefighters to other departments since becoming a fully paid department on April 25, 2010, he said. Of those, 20 were certified emergency medical technicians and 20 more were certified paramedics.
Eleven were certified hazardous materials technicians, and 17 were certified to drive big rigs.
“The more you load your gun with desirable traits, the more opportunity you have to get hired,” Guido said. “They’re taking the people who have the most training.”
The talent drain is accelerating, he said, at the same time that recruitment is dwindling.
The department lost 13 firefighters, all of whom were EMTs or paramedics, in just the past two months, mostly to the Omaha Fire Department, which offers the full-time employment Bellevue does not.
At the same time, fewer beginners are coming in the door interested in learning the profession.
“There aren’t that many qualified people coming into the pool,” Guido said.
The carrot drawing people away from Bellevue is the prospect of full-time employment, he said.
Only 13 of the 133 firefighters the Fire Department needs to fill all of its shifts are full-time — all members of the command staff. The rest are part-time employees, earning between $9.50 and $13.75 an hour.
The solution, Guido said, is to increase the number of full-time jobs available.
He said the department will remain a hybrid of full-time and part-time employees for the foreseeable future but that the balance needs to adjust toward full-time employment.
“Most of these kids are young, and they want a career,” Guido said. “They don’t want it as a second job, they want it as a career, and I don’t blame them.”
The consequences of the declining manpower can be striking.
Guido said the department has occasionally been forced, over the past three years, to close one of the city’s four stations and depend on mutual aid agreements with Papillion and Omaha to take up the slack. The closed station rotates, he said, so that no single sector of Bellevue always carries the burden.
The problem is particularly dire on weekends and holidays, when few of the part-time firefighters want to work.
The department requires its part-time firefighters to work 528 hours every six months, but the firefighters are permitted to choose when those hours will be.
Guido said that is a necessary compromise since the part-timers must balance firefighting with their full-time jobs.
The more he tries to assign hours – and mandatory Saturday hours were recently introduced – the more difficult it becomes for the part-timers to serve.
“If I start ordering people to come to work, they’ll have to decide if they’re going to go to their full-time job or their part-time job,” he said. “Then I’ve lost them for good, and I won’t have anybody.”
Bill Bowes, chief of the Papillion Fire Department, sympathized with Guido’s plight.
He said there are advantages to working with small-town departments, and Papillion has not lost a firefighter to larger cities in four years. But Papillion hires only full-time firefighters, he said, and until Guido has a similar ability, Bellevue is likely to struggle.
“Bellevue is becoming a prime training round for fire departments, which makes it difficult for Chief Guido to keep people around,” he said.
The La Vista Fire Department, which remains a volunteer force, is experiencing similar retention challenges, La Vista Fire Chief Rich Uhl said.
He said an active recruitment program keeps new people coming through the door. But retaining the volunteers on the force once they’re trained and eligible for paid employment elsewhere is an ongoing battle.
“Keeping people on the department for a long period of time is challenging,” he said.
Guido said none of this comes as a surprise to city leaders, who understood when the department moved from volunteer status to paid that the number of full-time firefighters would have to increase over time.
“We estimated at the outset that we could survive this way for four or five years,” he said. “We’re coming up on three years now, and if we don’t start transitioning I think we’ll see more people leave.”
The problem is compounded by an aging command staff, Guido said, which means the department will soon lose much of its ability to mentor newcomers and people might be put into command positions before they’re ready.
“You can have all the book learning you want, but experience is what counts the most,” he said.
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