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'Not just fighting fires': Area fire chiefs compare firefighter pay in profession with increasing training, scope of duties

 

Martin Andrews, left, and Charles Yarbrough

Martin Andrews, left, and Charles Yarbrough

 

 

 

 

 

Isabelle Altman

 

 

He's 21 years old. He has a high school education and a higher-than-average ACT score. He's just been handed 75 pounds worth of weights and is told to climb a stairclimber with them on his back for three minutes and 20 seconds. 

 

He manages it, but there's no time to catch his breath. He has to immediately complete an obstacle course that requires him to drag and hook up a fire hose, carry two chainsaws, set up and climb two separate ladders, demonstrate he can forcibly enter a building, crawl through a pitch-dark tunnel on his stomach, rescue a 165-pound dummy and breach a ceiling as though reaching a ceiling fire -- all within 10 minutes and 20 seconds. 

 

All that, and he hasn't even taken the written test to know whether he can become a probationary firefighter at Columbus Fire and Rescue, Chief Martin Andrews said. 

 

The test, called a candidate physical agility test (CPAT), is meant to simulate everything an entry-level firefighter may have to do even before they complete EMT training and national firefighter certifications, both of which are required to move up CFR's ranks. 

 

In that first year, before certification, a CFR firefighter can expect to make $33,219. Once he or she becomes certified, that will bump to $34,561 and on up the ranks to captains, who make $46,492. 

 

Andrews said he would like to see those numbers increase. He's asked city councilmen but says he knows the city doesn't have the money now.  

 

"It's still my duty to ask," he said. 

 

 

 

Competitive rates 

 

The last pay raise CFR firefighters received was in 2017 when Columbus raised wages for employees by three percent across the board, excluding the police department, which had received one the previous year. 

 

The rates are higher than West Point ($32,556 for entry-level), lower than Oxford ($34,419) and slightly less than Starkville, where firefighters in their first year make between $32,182 and $35,247. 

 

"We're not there, but we're not far off," Andrews said. "Our certified (are) making $10.88 (an hour, compared to Starkville's $11.50). I'm not sure about their engineers, but our engineers are making $12.48. We (were) trying to get them to $13." 

 

While the pay for entry-level firefighters is comparable between CFR and Starkville Fire Department, that's not necessarily the case as firefighters move up the ranks. A captain with CFR makes $46,492 per year. A SFD captain makes $49,554. 

 

Andrews said he'd like for there to be bigger pay differences between ranks to motivate an increasingly young department to chase promotions. 

 

"We're just basically trying to get a $2-difference in rank so we'll get people interested in taking tests (to be promoted)," Andrews said. 

 

"Now we're having problems getting people to really want to take the engineer's test and the captain's test because there's really not a lot of difference," he later added. 

 

Starkville firefighters may enjoy higher pay than Columbus firefighters, but that wasn't the case three years ago when incoming Chief Charles Yarbrough led a campaign to raise the rates, which were several thousand dollars less than those in Columbus. 

 

"When I started in 2015, they were making $28,700 a year to be a firefighter," he said. "...To run into fires. 

 

"I just thought it was ridiculous to be making that (little) amount of money," he added. 

 

He said he and the human resources department together came up with a progression plan that allowed entry-level firefighters to receive pay raises as they worked toward their certification. They first took it to Starkville's board of aldermen in 2015, though aldermen didn't approve the plan until a year later. That, along with the pay increases, allowed the department to be competitive with other departments its size, Yarbrough said. 

 

Like Andrews, Yarbrough operates by the logic that the more training and the higher the rank a firefighter achieves should result in significantly higher pay. 

 

"Some of our firefighters have more classes than some of the other departments' captains and battalion chiefs," he said. "We require a lot because I think education is very important.  

 

"It's not just fighting fires," he added. "I wish that's all we did." 

 

 

 

A diverse job 

 

Among the other duties of firefighters now are responding to calls about hazardous materials and engaging in search and rescue. Both departments have teams that can be deployed outside the city during natural disasters and other crises both in and outside the state.  

 

Between 80 and 85 percent of firefighters' calls now are medical calls, which is why it's increasingly important for firefighters to be EMT-certified. 

 

"Probably the smallest thing we do now is fight fires," Andrews said. 

 

The increase in requirements means there's more training, from medical training at East Mississippi Community College to, for Columbus, training at conferences and events in other states so the department can keep up with its national accreditation. 

 

CFR is the only municipal fire department in Mississippi accredited by the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE), a national organization that has accredited less than 300 departments in the country. Every five years, Andrews said, the department comes up for re-accreditation. They're currently preparing for re-accreditation next year, which Andrews said he hopes to achieve thanks to increased safety training for firefighters and improvements in equipment such as a new firetruck. 

 

Columbus Mayor Robert Smith attends some of the training conferences, including two earlier this year in Florida and Texas. He said he, like Andrews and other CFR staff, will be questioned by a CPSE panel when the department comes up for re-accreditation. 

 

"Each conference is a learning experience for me, especially not really being a firefighter," Smith said. "It's an eye-opener. It takes a lot of training for these guys to do an effective job." 

 

 

 

Benefits 

 

Smith said he knows Columbus firefighters make slightly less than Starkville, but he believes the city makes up the difference in benefits. 

 

Andrews and Columbus Human Resources director Pat Mitchell said the city provides benefits that other municipalities don't have, such as health insurance and vacation packages that improve depending on how many years a firefighter stays with the department (two weeks after one year, three weeks after 10 years and four weeks after 15 years). In particular, they said, the city's partnership with Baptist Medical Clinic, which provides primary care and other medical benefits for the city, Lowndes County and Columbus Light and Water employees, is a plus, especially for firefighters. 

 

"They don't pay a dime for it," Mitchell said of city employees. "... It's just another benefit that a lot of entities do not provide." 

 

The city nearly pulled out of the partnership earlier this year after it was erroneously reported that only 35 city employees used the clinic's services. Columbus councilmen reconsidered this week after BMG lowered their rates. 

 

"That's an incentive," Columbus Mayor Robert Smith said. "As a matter of fact, a couple of firemen called and asked me (after the city announced the plan to pull out of the agreement with Baptist) if I would seriously reconsider the Baptist deal because it was beneficial to them. 

 

"I probably had more firefighters call me than I did other employees," he added. 

 

While Andrews said he would like to see a pay raise for his firefighters and feels it's his duty to ask for it, he said understands the city doesn't have the money to raise the pay right now. 

 

"Most of them love doing what they do," Andrews said. "It's not about getting rich. It's not about being a big shot in the community. It's about helping and assisting people in time of need."

 

 

 

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