Wyo. FDs hope ‘rehire retired firefighters’ bill will boost chief recruitment
The Senate bill would allow small city, county departments to hire retired firefighters for chief officer positions
By Hannah Shields
CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Wyoming’s fire departments are the second state entity to consider rehiring retired personnel amid a depleting workforce.
With limited budgets that barely cover the costs of equipment, maintenance and fuel, rural fire districts depend on volunteer firefighters to staff their departments. Fire Chief Derek Walls, who oversees Laramie County Fire District 5 , said people are rarely willing to make the voluntary time commitment.
“It’s hard to find people that can leave their job for six hours in the middle of the day,” Walls told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle on Wednesday.
Senate File 4, also known as the “Rehire retired firefighters” bill, would allow smaller city and county fire departments to rehire retired firefighters to fill chief-level positions.
Although Laramie County Fire District 1 has a larger volunteer pool to recruit from than most special fire districts, including military personnel from F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Fire Chief Darrick Mittlestadt said the passage of SF 4 would be a huge help to his department.
“It really helps us out because we’re missing some of that senior staff and the senior experience,” he said.
This bill is one of four to be considered in the upcoming budget session that addresses the firefighter shortage in Wyoming. The framework for it was pulled from a similar House bill that passed last legislative session, which allowed the Wyoming Highway Patrol to rehire retired state troopers.
A provision in the Public Employee Pension Plan allows employers in state/local entities and school districts to rehire retired employees. Specifically, employees can temporarily fill full-time vacant positions, as long as it’s the same position from which they retired.
Federated Firefighters of Wyoming President Kevin Reddy said most professional fire personnel have an early retirement age of 50. Wyoming law allows them to work until 65, but after turning 50 years old, firefighters stop accruing pension benefits.
“There’s no incentive to stay with your department or work for another Wyoming fire department past age 50,” Reddy said. “If they were allowed to continue drawing their pension, (however), they potentially could be picked up by a smaller agency that may not have the revenue to compete with the larger departments.”
Reddy said he couldn’t guarantee this bill, if passed, would be successful in solving recruitment issues in every fire department, but it was at least a step in the right direction.
Other incentives to boost recruitment
There are other bills that may be considered in the upcoming budget session that aim to boost recruitment of volunteer personnel. Senate File 3, for one, would grant leave to state employees to volunteer for fire or emergency medical services, and Senate File 8 would grant health insurance to volunteer emergency responders.
Walls said these two bills, if passed, would have “the biggest impact” on special fire districts. Should SF 3 pass, the district fire chief said he could recruit state employees in his area, such as from the local Wyoming Department of Transportation road shop.
“They’d be able to leave work and still get a paid wage from the state,” he said.
Not every rural district has state employees to recruit from, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other resources. Laramie County District 4 Chief Cy Thorup said there’s not a state employee in sight, but there are plenty of farmers and ranchers within his area.
“The farmers and ranchers can’t get insurance,” Thorup said. “If (SF 8) gets through, that could highly help us out in recruitment.”
Recruitment numbers spiraling down
A Wyoming Fire Recruitment Survey was sent out early last year to fire districts across the state to review staffing shortages in various departments. Wyoming Fire Advisory Board President Shad Cooper said the survey captured a nearly 50% response rate of all the state’s fire departments.
Nearly 90% of respondents said their department experienced challenges in recruiting new firefighters.
“The numbers show that we’re about 500 firefighters short in the state,” Cooper told lawmakers last September. “There’s definitely a strong need to provide incentives and recruitment retention benefits for our firefighters.”
Reddy, who has been in the fire service for 24 years, said he used to have to compete against 300-plus applicants for two or three positions a year. That number dropped to about 100 annual applicants for the same number of positions.
“Recruitment in the number of applicants has gone down in the last 20 years,” he told the WTE.
Rural fire districts are being hurt the most. Fire chiefs Walls and Thorup said their departments are 100% run on volunteer firefighters but receive only one to three applications a year.
“Volunteering, in general, is a bygone past,” Walls said. “There are so few people out there who want to do it anymore.”
Fire District 1 currently has two fire stations, with a third set to open in March, and has a combination of paid and volunteer firefighter positions. Chief Mittlestadt said nine out of 12 paid positions are filled, and his department has an active roster of 22 volunteers.
As the busiest fire district in the state, receiving an average of 2,000 calls annually, Mittlestadt said he’d ideally like to take on 20 to 30 more volunteers.
“One of the things that we’re seeing in the fire service is a lot of vacancies, especially with the volunteer positions,” Mittlestadt said. “This is my 27th year in the fire service, and what was normal just 10 years ago isn’t even close to normal now.”
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