The ranks within the Turlock Fire Department continue to dwindle with three firefighters leaving last week for new positions at other departments.
The recent departures follow the retirement announcement of Interim Fire Chief Gary Carlson and bring the number of firefighters to leave the department to 13 in three years and 23 in the last 10 years.
“We need to stop the bleeding,” said Turlock Firefighters Local #2434 President Chad Hackett about the recent personnel losses.
“When we get called, it is usually on the worst day of someone’s life,” he continued. “It could be a vehicle accident, or a family member that has had a massive or minor medical issue, or your house is on fire. People expect highly-trained, highly-equipped and highly-skilled to arrive on scene to mitigate those problems. So, the problem we are having now is a lot of those skilled personnel are leaving to go to other departments.
“A fire department is like a city’s insurance policy and you never really know how good of a policy you actually have until you need it.”
Hackett said the firefighters’ union is increasingly frustrated with the actions and sometimes the inaction of the City. The union believes the root cause of all these departures is from a change in the benefits package, coupled with a stagnant salary structure and a growing number of vacancies in fire administration.
In 2018-19 the fire union and the City of Turlock were not able to come to an agreement on a contract and ultimately one was imposed on the union that included higher deductibles for medical insurance.
“That contract, what it reflected was there were no pay increases and that there were going to be higher deductible costs for medical,” Hackett said. “We had always known as a union that we were benefit rich and salary poor. So, when the City started to attack our benefits that kind of led to a ripple effect of where we are heading now.
“We signed a one-year contract last year with us paying 5% medical and the only thing that we got back was in terms of longevity, which kicked in at years 10, 15 and 20,” Hackett said. “Our new guys in years one through 10, didn’t receive anything but a 5% reduction in pay.”
The firing of Robert Talloni from the fire chief position in 2019 and only appointing Carlson as interim has also had ripple effects within the fire department, Hackett said.
“We are a ship in the sea without direction,” Hackett said. “There’s no forecasting, there’s no strategical plan on where the department is going to go in three years, five years and 10 years.
“We went from a fire chief, an operations chief, the fire marshal and the training chief,” Hackett said. “Then we were down to two of the four and now Chief Carlson’s leaving and that only leaves the fire marshal. What’s even worse is that if the fire marshal leaves there’s no one under him.”
It’s not just that the fire department is losing personnel, it’s who they are losing. The majority of the departures have been engineers, who have more specialized training, more skills and more years of experience. The department also has lost fire captains.
“A lot of these gentlemen that have just left are hazmat techs and specialists, which is all training that that has been supplied by the City and now another city will get that benefit,” Hackett said.
For the fire department, the hiring process takes around three to four months, and then once hired a new recruit goes through a six-week academy. Once assigned to an engine, the new firefighter has to complete a 12-month probationary period. The cost of hiring a new can be around $8,000 with medical, psychological, and background testing. And from there the costs grow. For a newly hired firefighter, the department has to purchase personal protective equipment, which cost around $5,000 each. The training academy costs around $40,000 and hopefully multiple candidates are in the academy, so that the per person cost is around $8,000. Probationary training costs add about $5,000 per person, for a total of approximately $26,000 per recruit.
Daily minimum staffing at Turlock’s four fire stations is 13 per shift, which includes a battalion chief. Hackett said the department is currently down to 37, meaning that firefighters are routinely mandated to work overtime or additional shifts.
“The concern is that at some point we are going to hit a tipping point from the longer hours and shifts and that can lead to someone getting injured or killed,” Hackett said.
The City of Turlock currently has a posting for an internal promotional opportunity for Fire Engineer, with a salary range of $5,331 to $6,479 a month. The job posting closing date is Oct. 1.