To stem the revolving door in filling part-time firefighter positions, the city moved on Tuesday to convert three part-time positions into three full-time positions.
“I am very pleased to see this,” said Councilmember Gary Kraus, retired Calistoga fire chief. “It gives people serving in part-time positions, a future goal that there is a good possibility that they will be upgraded to full-time permanent status.”
There will always be a need for some part-time work, said Steve Campbell, chief of Calistoga Fire Department, but how many people that will involve will be dependent on an employee’s availability, and in covering for strike teams that report to wildfires, for example.
Last November the fire department started to prepare for hiring a replacement for an employee who was planning to leave for another agency, City Manager Dylan Feik said. They started the process of recruiting, testing, interviewing and eventually hiring people to become part-time members of the department. With that there are significant costs involved in “onboarding” employees for such things as structure gear, wildland gear, uniforms, testing and training. In hiring four part-time employees last year the city spent some $80,000 to bring on the new employees, Feik said.
Unfortunately, one of the downsides of using part-time staff is that many of them want to be career firefighters, so as in the case of the four part-timers that were hired, three of them were offered full-time positions at other agencies, Feik said.
Before Campbell went through the hiring process again Feik asked Campbell and Gloria Leon, finance director, to crunch some numbers and see what the cost was to the city to continue with the part-time firefighter program compared to converting the positions to full-time.
The full-time positions come with benefits such as medical coverage and pensions, which add a cost to the city, but the city believes that is offset by not spending money on things such as the recruiting process and training new employees, which is burdensome on the entire department.
There also is the “intangible” benefit to reducing turnover, Councilmember Jim Barnes said.
“If you go from part-time pay to full-time pay you engender a greater sense of loyalty, I would think, a much greater sense of community … you want these folks to be part of a team, you want this team spirit, which is very difficult to do with part-timers, I would think. The camaraderie this would engender is very, very important,” Barnes said.
Kraus recommended offering the full-time positions to existing employees and the current list of recruits before opening up the position to outside applicants. He also suggested bumping up the starting pay range to appeal to a wider range of applicants. The starting pay will be slightly under $19 an hour with full benefits, including vacation, medical, and pension.
“Kids don’t think about retirement … but some might have families and take-home pay would be important to them,” Kraus said.
Campbell said he will start the full-time firefighter program in January. The additional annual cost to the city will be under $120,000.