$300 … That could be the approximate weekly take-home pay for any newly hired Poplar Bluff firefighter who chooses to put his wife and/or children on his insurance plan.
Until a recent vote by the Poplar Bluff City Council, two-thirds of the employees’ dependent health insurance was covered by the city. That changed Sept. 1, after the council voted to drop its contribution.
While city officials have emphasized this doesn’t effect any current city employees, how can it not?
Who could afford to work for $300 a week/$11.93 per hour, let alone risk their life for it? I know I wouldn’t, and I’m not sure I would want any of my family members too either given the risks that come with being a firefighter.
What I do know is anyone who does choose a public-service career isn’t doing it for the money.
What I also know is I’ve heard city leaders repeatedly speak about how Poplar Bluff is growing.
It’s not a new revelation.
A feasibility study done decades ago said the city needed a fourth fire station out in the Kanell Boulevard area and nine additional firefighters to adequately provide services to a growing city.
Not only has that not happened, but the department has lost four firefighter positions since then. It also is the only city department that does not have an assistant chief. That position was sacrificed years ago in order to keep from losing firefighter position(s).
The fact that the department is running short handed is something I know first hand as I am in and out of the main station on South Broadway nearly every day.
Many shifts, there will only be two firefighters at each of the three stations.
That may sound like a lot, but when the alarm goes off and those trucks head out, especially to a structure fire, it’s not.
Each firefighter has a specific job to do when they pull up on a scene.
For a structure fire, it turns into all hands on deck. The battalion chief’s initial job is to do a walk around of the structure to plan an attack. The driver is the gopher, running hoses and supplies to the other firefighters.
At a Barron Road house fire in early August, firefighters had to lay 150 to 200 feet of hose, then add a line to that to get around the house. The hose was attached to a hydrant about 150 yards east of the house. It took time to lay those hoses before the first drop of water hit the fire.
Had it been necessary to lay hose to the back of 201 S. Main St. when it burned for a third time in early September, an entire city block may have been lost.
Both of those fires also required a full call back of the other two shifts of firefighters because of the size of the structures.
That also was the case in August 2016 when a fire destroyed a historic downtown building on Vine Street that had housed two businesses and six apartments.
Fire broke out just before 10:30 a.m. that day, and within a short amount of time, I lost count of the number of firefighters who were called back to help. Many remained on the scene until late into the evening.
As proud as I was of their efforts that day, I also was shocked by how little the firefighters were paid — a max of $15.05 per hour. A firefighter’s salary tops out at that amount after three years of service, so whether he has been with the department for three years or 10, he receives the same salary at that point.
When called back, firefighters are paid for two hours, earning time and a half, for the response call.
Should those called-back firefighters be needed longer, they receive time and a half for each additional hour.
What that equates to is less than $23 for every hour they work when called back, but, again, that amount is for those firefighters who had been with the department at least three years.
While many would love to make $23 an hour, I suspect they wouldn’t want to don the heavy turnout gear firefighters wear or enter a burning building to do it.
As the insurance issue came before the city council before its August vote, I couldn’t help but notice it was Municipal Utilities employees who were the loudest voices to complain.
Sitting quietly back, not saying anything, were the ones who put their lives on the line every day.
The same ones who have been working without a contract for two years.
The same ones who, like other city employees, have sacrificed raises over the years in order to keep their benefits. Now, those benefits they’ve worked so hard to keep are being taken away from them.
I have to wonder, do city officials really expect to hire qualified employees, especially at the fire department, with this change when there are so many other options available?
With a starting salary of $15.45 a hour, could places like W.W. Wood Products at Dudley be more attractive?
We may soon find out.
I’ve been at the Daily American Republic for 26 years, and every member of that department, including Chief Ralph Stucker, was hired after me.
Within 10 years, only one of the current officers (battalion chief/captains) will remain.
Before that happens nearly 10 officers and firefighters will be retiring.
That’s a lot of positions to fill in the next decade, and Stucker already has told me the department is having a hard time filling any open slots because so few apply.
But, Poplar Bluff is not alone as that’s the common trend nationwide.
In my mind, that begs the question, when it comes time to hire, will it come down to the benefits now being offered by the city?
Will the loss of what many considered a big benefit of being a firefighter/city employee make a difference?
Will anyone apply … we can only hope and pray they do, both for our sake and the sake of the city of Poplar Bluff.