Columbia Fire Department seeks to raise salaries to address staffing issues

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Published: Apr. 12, 2023 at 7:51 PM EDT

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - To help address staffing issues, the Columbia Richland Fire Department is seeking to raise starting salaries by nearly $10,000.

The department presented its proposed payment plan to the city council at a budget workshop on Tuesday.

According to Fire Chief Aubrey D. Jenkins, Columbia Fire is currently down about 10 percent of its workforce.

Jenkins said one of the key issues leading to the shortage is that pay for Columbia’s firefighters is significantly lower than in some surrounding cities.

Those departments are often pulling from the same talent pool, he said.

“We want to make it attractive for people to want to come here,” Jenkins said.

The current base salary for Columbia’s firefighters is $34,174.

Columbia Fire hopes to raise that to $43,800, to keep pace with other local departments.

“I talk to my colleagues all the time, fire chiefs from around the state, and we’re all facing this same problem as far as trying to get people in the door,” Jenkins said.

Columbia’s pay for firefighters is lower than other cities and counties that respond to fewer calls.

In an average year, Columbia Fire’s call volume is about 34,307.

For example, the base salary for a Charleston firefighter is $43,561. That department responds to about 19,604 calls annually, according to a recent pay study.

Myrtle Beach pays its firefighters $45,150 as a base salary and responds to fewer than half the calls of the capital city.

Lexington County’s starting salary is $38,000. The department responds to about 18,741 calls annually.

“I think one thing unique about us is that we do run quite a bit of calls, and firemen, they want to get out and help people,” Jenkins said. “All those calls that we run, it’s an opportunity for them to get out and help people. And that’s what their calling is, to get out and help people.”

The total price tag for the plan is about $2.8 million.

A little more than half of the cost, about $1.48 million, would be coming from the city.

Richland County would pay another $1.33 million.

Taxpayers would have to foot the bill, but Columbia mayor Daniel Rickenmann said at the budget workshop that he is hoping the city’s universities and other state government offices could help offset some of that cost.

WIS asked Jenkins what his message would be to taxpayers about this pay raise request.

“I think that anytime you’ve got a vibrant public safety cadre, whether it be police, fire, EMS, whatever, I think then you can consider your city a whole lot safer because you have people that can respond to these calls,” he said. “That’s what we want to make sure. Our first and foremost thing is to make sure we provide the best coverage for our citizens out there. Alongside that, we have to make sure that we are keeping our firefighters safe.”

Columbia Fire is also making some changes of its own to recruit and retain more first responders.

The department is currently retooling the way that firefighters choose their leave to give them more flexibility throughout the year, and tightening its sick leave policy.

Battalion chiefs sent letters to employees in January who had 72 hours of sick leave, and the department plans to change that to 48 hours.

After getting a letter, firefighters are required to get a doctor’s note for future sick days.

Columbia Fire is also looking to hire part-time firefighters.

Jenkins said he has had a discussion with Lexington County Fire to possibly set up an arrangement where firefighters could swap departments because they undergo similar training.

“That doesn’t mean that Lexington County would be the only department or the only people that we’ll reach out to,” he said. “There are some logistical things that we have to make sure, like make sure people have proper gear, make sure they have the proper training. We’re not just going to put anybody in these slots.”

More part-time workers could help the department cut down on overtime, Jenkins added.

The next step in this process is for the city council to vote on the proposed payment plan.

A first reading could come as early as next week.

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