The Escambia County Commission learned about a draft “brown out” plan Thursday that might temporarily close two fire stations due to reduced staffing, as two commissioners disagreed over low firefighter pay and the need for volunteers.
Escambia Fire Rescue operates 21 fire stations. Thirteen stations are staffed 24 hours a day with career, seven are volunteer only, and the Century fire station has a daytime career crew weekdays and volunteer staffing at other times.
If department-wide career firefighter staffing falls below 47 when Century’s crew is on duty, or 43 after hours and weekends, a firehouse will brown out — shut down with an remaining crew members reassigned to other stations. The draft plan calls for the Warrington station to be the first to brown out, followed by Bellview if necessary.
“This is a contingency plan. This is a last-ditch effort. This is a Hail Mary,” interim Public Safety Director Eric Gilmore told commissioners. “This is in case we do go below minimum staffing levels, and we’ve got processes in place to keep us from getting there.”
“If we had COVID hit an entire house and took all those members out of the house, then we would have major problems,” Gilmore said. “We’ve got administration that’s going to step up and run those trucks, down to the interim fire chief stepping up and running the trucks. So, this is in case we get to those minimum levels that are unforeseen, or things happen or we lose additional staff. So that’s what this plan is. It is a last-ditch effort…There are things we’ll do. We’ll pull volunteers from other houses; we’ll stand up a volunteer house. So from administration to the volunteers, we’ll do everything we can to get to that point.”
“You have to do this because we have been on a long trajectory underfunding the public safety. You have to do this, the same way as if you’re crash landing an airplane; you still have to through an emergency landing check,” Commissioner Doug Underhill told Gilmore at a Thursday morning commission session. “When you’re losing airspeed and altitude, every single minute, you’re crashing. We are losing airspeed and altitude with regard to fire safety in this county, and we have been for a long time. You are undermanned. You told me in my office that our pay rates are not competitive for firefighters in this area.”
“That is correct. We are lowest in the Panhandle; we are lowest,” Gilmore responded. “We have lost members to surrounding departments because of that.”
Underhill said with a low pay rate, Escambia County is training “great cops and great firefighters” to go serve at other departments. He said that if Escambia County still has staffing problems, equipment breaking down, and a brown out plan, the commission did not give the department adequate funding.
“There are firefighters right now in Escambia County making six figures, lieutenants making over six figures,” Bergosh challenged. “It’s a tough job. It’s a challenging job. But if you work a career there, you retire in your late 40s or early 50s with a full pension, and you make tremendous money for this area. So, I think we do need to raise starting pay, and, of course, I’m going to support that.”
“But the other thing we need to do is treat our volunteers better. We haven’t been treating them well. They have been wholesale run out of many firehouses, and I’m working against that. That’s a big problem,” Bergosh continued. “Volunteers work for a $400 a month stipend, Doug. It’s a lot cheaper to do that than pay a fully loaded career (firefighter) a 50, 60, 70, a 100 (thousand). We need to recruit volunteers. There are many out there that want to serve. Many firehouses are run 100% volunteer…I support all firefighters.”
“We need to embrace a culture of volunteers. Instead of running them out, strangling from getting the training they need so they can’t serve. We’ve also had a tremendous leadership vacuum, two years without a fire chief,” added Bergosh. “But the knee-jerk isn’t do what Doug Underhill says. The knee-jerk isn’t let’s go raise taxes. I will tell you, Doug, it’s not always about how much you get paid, it’s about where you work, the community you live in, and other factors. It’s not always about money. You want to be a firefighter in Escambia County, you can make tremendous money doing it.”
District 1 Commissioner Bergosh continued, “God bless them. They do great work. I want to pay them good money, but I also want to get our volunteers back into all the firehouses, and I want them to be treated well.”
Underhill replied that in the “built-up” part of the county, which he defined as south of I-10, the volunteer service failed to achieve objectives.
“Volunteer service is an augmentation to professional service, but every single citizen in my district deserves to have a professionally trained, professional outfitted fire team arrive at their home in their time of need,” Underhill said. “I love the bit of Americana that is the volunteer fire service, it is perfectly appropriate in rural areas.”
Gilmore told NorthEscambia.com that volunteer firefighters in Escambia County are issued the same equipment as career firefighters, and the volunteers also have state certification in order to perform in their capacity as firefighters.