Wilson County (TN) Ready to Hit Panic Button on Staffing Crisis

Wilson County Emergency Management Agency logo
Image/Wilson County Emergency Management Agency

Chandler Inions

The Lebanon Democrat, Tenn.

(MCT)

Wilson County Emergency Management Agency’s staff retention troubles show no signs of slowing down as the shortfall led two EMA stations — Station 7 (in the Statesville community) and Station 11 (Norene) — to shut their doors last weekend.

On Tuesday, the EMA committee held a regular-scheduled meeting and discussed the implications of not addressing the issue with sufficient urgency.

Just how dire is the staffing shortfall becoming?

“We’ve lost four paramedics since the last meeting, and four more that will probably be going in December,” WEMA EMS Chief Brian Newberry said.

Related

Quantifying the loss to Wilson County becomes more clear when you consider how many years of service have been lost.

International Association of Firefighters Wilson County chapter vice president Colton Young explained that with the 21 departures so far in 2021, Wilson County has lost more than 100 years of experience to the private sector and other counties.

Where are they going?

Young explained that opportunities to make more elsewhere have siphoned off staff from WEMA, which really hurts considering the unique qualifications of the county’s personnel.

Compared to counterparts in neighboring counties, WEMA personnel are more trained in a variety of emergency-response scenarios. Where other counties have firefighters and paramedics receiving individualized training, Wilson County employs individuals who possess both.

Young stated that while this is an asset to the county and those on the receiving end of medical transport, it’s a contentious issue for the employees who don’t feel they are being compensated accordingly.

His union represents 55% of the firefighters in Wilson County. His chapter has been polling members to gauge satisfaction, and it always comes back to lack of a decent wage.

“We have to get pay up,” Young said. “We can sugarcoat everything we want to. But we have to get our pay up.”

Once this happens, Young sees opportunity for success.

“Once we are marketable, people will come to us,” Young said on Tuesday. “But until then, can you blame them? They have families and homes to pay for.”

According to Young, this is causing local first responders to seek employment either part-time or full-time elsewhere. However, given this unique combination of training, it’s not possible to find a job elsewhere that combines the two.

“We’re not apples to apples with anybody,” said Young. “Our jobs are to provide medical and fire coverage. That’s why you hire us to do that for the people of Wilson County.”

It’s not just a job concern, it’s also become a family matter for many of the first responders.

“I can’t even afford to live in Wilson County, because I don’t make enough,” Young said. “But we love Wilson County. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t.”

At some point though, the committee has to reconcile the cost with the well-being of the personnel tasked with keeping the county’s residents safe. Young explained that within the first responder field, “burnout is at an all-time high.”

“When your people get burnout they aren’t going to stay around long,” Young said. “Their families are suffering, so you have to ask yourselves, ‘What is our mental health and physical health worth to the county?’ “

Countywide pay study

The county is currently undertaking a pay study that compares employees’ wages with those from surrounding counties. However, members of the EMA committee are concerned that waiting for the study’s completion could have drastic consequences.

Wilson County Finance Director Aaron Maynard said that the study’s conclusion date of January was still in effect.

In the meantime, the EMA Committee wants to explore how to compensate first responders to better retain their services. Committee Chairman William Glover proposed giving out bonuses to personnel that stay on.

Committee member Lauren Breeze suggested digging into funds from the American Rescue Plan, but she acknowledged that offering the increase from a non-recurring revenue source would ultimately lead them back to the discussion table once it runs out.

It will most likely result in a tax increase, but some on the committee are saying that shouldn’t be the focus.

Commissioner Justin Smith urged his fellow committee members to consider whatever is necessary to increase retention rates, even if it means a tax increase.

“We are in a crisis, and something has to be done,” Smith said. “This is not the time to play politics.”

The county commissioner representing the district most affected by the stations closing, Sara Patton, echoed Smith’s point.

“Just because it’s an election year doesn’t mean you should hide behind it until next year,” Patton said. “These people might be coming to save your life.”

Patton added that she sees it as one more slight to the people she represents. Getting emergency services to the southeast end of the county is partially what prompted Patton to become a commissioner.

“I’ve been on the EMA committee ever since I was elected commissioner,” Patton said. “I made it my priority to get a station in Statesville and Noreen. And now both of them are closed.”

What it’s going to take

To get to the required $4.3 million that is estimated to raise wages to a competitive level, Wilson County would have to raise property taxes by 7.1 cents. Sales-tax increases are not an option as that measure is already maxed. Alternatively, a wheel tax would require a public referendum.

Even raising property taxes couldn’t happen until the next budget season, so the committee’s hands are tied. That’s why the committee wants to use the American Rescue Plan funds to serve a stop-gap in the meantime.

How best to dole out work incentives may prove difficult as they balance tenure with need. WEMA Director Joey Cooper warned that keeping up with competitive wages from other counties could lead to strife within the department if hiring incentives outpace pay increases for more seasoned employees.

“You wouldn’t want a detective making more than the sheriff,” Cooper said, offering an analogy of the problem.

Ultimately, lack of action is costing the county even more money though as it is forced to pay overtime wages to the staff that does remain. Cooper estimated at the meeting that overtime is being clocked daily, at times by numerous personnel.

Outside of the pay study implemented by the county, Cooper and members of his staff compiled a list of neighboring counties’ wages as they compared to Wilson County’s wages. Despite Wilson County personnel having higher qualifications than those counterparts, their hourly wages for starting positions are dwarfed by their neighbors.

Newberry pointed to Wilson County’s nearby county to the northeast, Macon County.

“Macon only has three stations, yet they’re making more than we do,” said Newberry.

It is believed that until something is done to get those staffers to stay on, stations around the county will continue to experience temporary closures when hours run out, leaving those who called 911 in the first place to foot the bill.

___

(c)2021 The Lebanon Democrat, Tenn.

Visit The Lebanon Democrat, Tenn. at www.lebanondemocrat.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Author

  • Updates from 70 leading newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, with bureaus around the world; Chicago Tribune; Miami Herald; The Dallas Morning News; Seattle Times; and The Philadelphia Inquirer.

No posts to display