ROCKLAND – Rockland Fire and EMS lost an employee last week to an aggressive recruitment campaign by another emergency service department. Another employee left due to burnout, and five of the seven fire department officer positions will retire within the next five years.
“I don’t like to throw out threats or insinuate that the sky is falling and nobody is here to save us,” said Rockland Fire Chief Chris Whytock, during a City Council workshop, January 12, 2022, via Zoom. “But, we’re there, and if we don’t do something now – and when I say now, I literally mean now – I feel I’m going to lose more people.”
Whytock is proposing a recruitment solution that could potentially bring applicants to the department, as well as retain the valuable institutional knowledge who are beginning to tire from the inside.
The chief is asking City Council to increase hourly wage and reduce the 56-hour work week to 42 as a way to retain more employees from eying other departments that are “working a better schedule, making more money, and no other hangups beside that,” as Whytock described.
The City Council, in return, expressed understanding for the fire department’s dilemma, but outwardly wonders where the money will come from.
“As wonderful as this plan is, it adds over a quarter of a million dollars to the City budget,” said Mayor Ed Glaser. “And how do we pay for that? I’m not saying that this isn’t something that we are going to discuss, but it’s going to use up most of our time, in terms of the budget, from now till the budget season. And how we make that work is going to be the big question.”
At some point, the Council will hold a discussion on how to raise revenue for the City. Councilor Sarah Austin put out a public invitation for ideas as to how to pay for this proposal.
“If that’s something that folks have ideas about, or have particular concerns about, regarding this or other things we need to pay for….put your ideas in the hopper so we can hopefully come to the least painful option for covering the services that we need,” she said.
So far, the only guarantee by the City is that many more meetings will be held.
Two applicants recently applied for positions at the Rockland station. One of the applicants was undertrained. The other failed to show up. And when the recruitment efforts by other municipalities are leaving Rockland in the dust, why would a person apply with the city?
After Whytock’s presentation to City Council, Councilor Sarah Austin requested to hear non-financial incentives Rockland FD could use to draw applicants.
RFD has a great reputation as a progressive fire department, according to Whytock. The job comes with good insurance and retirement packages. The resources that the station provides to the community are lengthy.
But when Belfast and Augusta and other towns are offering $22-24 per hour, paramedics sending out applications aren’t as inclined to pursue Rockland’s $16.36 per hour wage (which increases to $17.51 per hour with the weekly stipend).
And to drive the streets of Rockland and see retail marquees advertising unskilled labor jobs at much higher starting wages, it doesn’t sit well with the people who’ve trained for hundreds and even thousands of hours in order to help save lives and property.
Whytock is cognizant of the municipal budget and the taxpayer burden.
“As a department head, the last thing I want to do is incur a cost on the City that 1) is unnecessary – and this couldn’t be further from that,” said Whytock. “I don’t take asking for more money lightly. I feel like this is the best option...I feel like this is our only option. I’m seriously concerned that if something like this doesn’t happen, I’m going to lose people from the top, and I’m going to lose people from the bottom. And I won’t be able to make those up. And I won’t be able to attract people, to bring them here, to make that up.”
Whytock reminded Council that he, too, is a taxpayer. His taxes will increase, as well.
The days of living for the fire department are over. People not only want to be home with their families, but want to have energy on those off days. And the younger, more limited workforce only want the 42-hour positions. Therefore, Whytock is proposing stretching the current three 24-hour shifts so that workers still work 24 hours at a time, but have more blocks of time off.
To do so, he’d be seeking to fill four new positions at an estimated taxpayer burden of $312,000. Knowing that he won’t have four new employees up and running any time soon, Whytock also provided a short term estimate of $210,000. The way the new system would be employed, the weekly rate for all employees will stay the same, according to Whytock.
Struggling on a regular basis
On the morning of January 12, Rockland FD’s shift staff of six employees were at the station. Two employees went on an ambulance call. While they were out, two more employees were called to another medical emergency. While those four were out, the station were alerted to a smell of propane inside a retail store. Normally all six would have gone to the odor investigation (a fire call), but only two were available until off duty volunteers could get there.
In 1999, before Whytock landed a position in Rockland, he was one of 500 applicants for 12 potential positions in Portland. Two years ago, only nine applicants applied for the same jobs.
Rural areas have even more of a struggle, relying heavily on volunteers. Whytock praises its Call Division for maintaining its response to Rockland FD during the pandemic...for the most part. Perhaps, according to him, it was because those volunteers happen to be working from home anyway.
Still, the volunteer numbers are dwindling. And recruitment efforts are not working.
“The pool is dry,” he said.
Ed Glaser might not like the dreaded “R” word, but “Regionalization” is coming
Rockland, Rockport, and Camden have been working on a plan for collaboration. Whytock believes it will work, but the collaboration is more for the EMS department.
With NorthEast Mobile Health covering four towns, plus taking patients on long-distance transports, their rigs can be anywhere in the county at any given time. It’s not unusual for a Camden or a Rockport patient to wait ten minutes for an ambulance. As a mutual aid partner for the towns, Rockland is sometimes called to those patients when NorthEast is unavailable. And sometimes, NorthEast is called to Rockland.
Rockport and Camden fire departments want to set up their own EMS and collaborate resources with Rockland. But the cost for Rockland will increase, not decrease. Two more employees with EMS licenses will need to be hired per shift for the West Rockport fire station, another two will need to be hired and based out of Camden.
“At the end of the day, if we’re not looking – in the near future – to share services, share personnel, we’re not going to be able to survive,” said Whytock.