Wash. city fire dept. feeling effects of 'baby boomer bust' retirements

Officials said expenses in recruiting and training newer employees will likely offset the decrease in pay scale expenses due to newer employees being paid less

By Tony Buhr
Walla Walla Union-Bulletin

WALLA WALLA, Wash. — Walla Walla's first responders will soon see a baby boomer bust.

The pending departures are due to an aging population of police officers and firefighters who are nearing retirement.

Each department has 47 employees and early retirement age for 20 years of service is 53, according to officials in both departments. The police department has 17 people age 50 or older; the fire department has eight.

The increasing age of department employees generally comes with higher salaries and medical costs, Walla Walla City Manager Nabiel Shawa said. But losing them also means the potential loss of learned wisdom and institutional knowledge.

"We have the baby boomer effect in Walla Walla," Shawa said. "So they are at the top of their pay scales for their time in service."

New employees are brought on at a lower pay scale, so the department's expenses could decrease as employees retire, he said. But expenses in other areas, such as recruiting and training newer employees, will likely offset that.

The biggest expenses to both departments comes from medical costs, Shawa said. As employees get older the chance of injury increases, particularly in those occupations.

"When somebody goes out for surgery, we then have to backfill those positions, which pushes up overtime costs," he said.

To prepare for the large turnover, both departments are developing succession plans, Shawa said. Senior officials are starting to document their daily duties, so when they retire their replacements aren't starting from square one.

"That's why succession planning and documentation is so critical, because so much knowledge has just been kept in people's minds," he said, adding that the departments want to ensure the when retirees "walk out the door all that knowledge doesn't leave with them."

Learning the ropes

Walla Walla Police Department spokesman Sgt. Kevin Braman said that since Chief Scott Bieber assumed command in 2012, he has hired 20 officers, almost half the department.

"It is a never-ending battle," Braman said. "We are constantly trying to recruit, hire quality candidates and get them trained up and on the road as fast as possible, without hemorrhaging too much money on overtime."

It can take eight to nine months for new officers to complete their training, he said. Recruits spend four months at the Washington State Basic Law Enforcement Academy and 12 weeks doing field training with the Walla Walla Police Department.

The department doesn't start the process of filling a position until after an officer has left, Braman said. So while a new recruit is training, other officers will pick up the extra hours, which can lead to overtime pay.

The recruitment process itself costs the department about $50,000 per person, he said.

Back injuries

Most employees who join the Walla Walla Fire Department stay for 25 to 30 years, Deputy Chief Brad Morris said. A position as a firefighter or a paramedic requires years of education to qualify and the process is competitive.

"People stay for their whole careers when they get this job," Morris said. "It is a pretty decent job and pretty rewarding to help people all the time."

But firefighting and paramedic work is not easy on the body, he added, and injuries are a major concern for the department.

Although the number of structure fires has declined over the years as building codes improved and people have become more award of household safety, the department now sees more injuries from tending to sick or injured people who need lifting, Morris said.

It isn't only first responders who are aging, the city also has a large older population and so the number of falls paramedics respond to is increasing.

"All day everyday we're doing EMS and sometimes we're in a position where we can't lift someone properly," Morris said. "Either because of the position they are in or because of the size of the patient. So the main injuries we see are lower back or shoulder injuries."

Paramedics now use electric gurneys to reduce the chance of injury, he said. Morris would also like to buy two autoloaders that grab onto gurneys and load them into ambulances without assistance.

"But those are about $25,000 a piece," he said. "So we're trying to either find or a grant or save some money through our budget process."

The fire department also prepares and trains continuously for when people do leave, Morris said. Every year it conducts promotion tests to see who might be ready to step up if necessary.

"There has been mass exoduses in the past where a lot of people have left in a short period of time," he said. "But the void gets filled in with the next person up. It's kind of like sports team analogy."

Copyright 2017 Walla Walla Union-Bulletin

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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