(April 17, 2015) Whether you chalk it up to federal policy, or the Town of Ocean City’s reaction to federal policy, the bottom line is that the city’s fire department is having a hard time filling its ranks.
Similar to the Ocean City Police Department – although for slightly different reasons – the Ocean City Fire Department is having difficulty finding needed manpower ahead of the summer onslaught.
“We had a significant challenge with our part-time postings heading into the summer,” OCFD Chief Chris Larmore said during budget hearings this week. “Right now, we’re going into the season with 60 part-time providers, whereas in the past that would’ve been more like 75.”
The major culprit is a lack of interest from part-time applicants once they discover that their hours will be significantly limited by the city’s clamp-down relating to federal health insurance reform. In order to prevent incurring any Obamacare liabilities – as in being required to provide health insurance – part-time staff are restricted from working more than 30 hours per week.
For firefighters and EMS providers, who work 24-hour shifts, this means being limited to a single rotation.
“We have part-time people who work full-time schedules, and have been reliant on them in the past,” Larmore said. “That pool is now starting to shrink. When those people can work closer to home for more hours, the desirability of coming to Ocean City starts to decline.”
As such, the OCFD is asking for – but the city has not yet funded – four of its current part-time positions to be re-classified as full-time for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Further, Larmore noted, the OCFD has created paramedic-only positions that do not require firefighters’ credentials, hoping that this offering will attract additional interest.
Throughout the year, but particularly in the summer, the OCFD’s pool of responders consists of a number of personnel who are paid, but are not provided insurance, retirement, and other such benefits. Rather, they are primarily employed elsewhere in the state, and come to Ocean City to pick up a few additional shifts.
In the past, this flexibility was seen as an upside. But in the current economic environment, most personnel aren’t in a position to rely on a job that has such variable hours.
“We don’t see that this trend is going to reverse anytime soon,” said OCFD Deputy Chief Chuck Barton. “A high number of the people who have entered the field over the past few years have been picked up by other departments.”
Re-classifying four positions as full-time would not increase wage expenses, Barton said, as the man-hours needed would remain the same.
“The difference in cost is in their benefits,” Barton said, with health and retirement packages for four people coming to just over $101,000. Even with this added, however, the OCFD’s personnel expenses would still be $35,000 under last year, because of savings elsewhere.
With four more responders able to make full-time commitments, the department would be able to staff another crew without having to schedule around the availability of part-time personnel.
“This is only one percent of the total department budget [of $10 million], but it is the backbone of the entire organization,” Barton said. “We really believe this one request is paramount.”
Councilman Matt James also asked during the budget hearing as to why the current listing for the OCFD’s vacant positions required only a paramedic’s license, and not firefighter’s credentials.
“We just didn’t get the total number of applications as in the past, along with the quality of those applications,” Larmore responded.
Although the OCFD’s current paid personnel are fully cross-trained for both medical and fire calls, Larmore said, many jurisdictions do not do this. Allowing paramedic-only hires would open the pool up to such personnel, who could still be used.
“It would be a paramedic-only position where we assign those providers to two ambulances, and those crews will take medical-only responses,” Larmore said.
This will create a greater logistical burden, as those crews will not be able to be switched over to fire trucks in order to even out the availability of personnel.
“This is going to be the first time we’ve tried this,” Larmore said. “I believe we’re going to be able to put more people on the road than we would’ve before, but it’s going to take more management oversight to do that.”