Fire department eyes reserve firefighter program

Following the lead of fire departments across the state, the Augusta Fire Department has plans to introduce a reserve firefighter program.

The department, which employs more than 300 firefighters, requested the reserve program – scheduled for a summer start – in its 2014 budget. The Augusta Commission approved its budget Tuesday night, and Fire Chief Chris James said he is waiting to hear from the city finance department about the more than $374,000 he requested for the program.

The program includes training reserves and providing them with equipment.

“It is my hope that we can get it to go into effect before June,” James said.

The department has been plagued with staffing issues in recent years that might be the result of emergency medical service companies luring firefighters away after they receive first responder certification – at the expense of the fire department.

“As soon as (the firefighters) got trained as EMTs, the local ambulance companies would hire them to work part time,” James said. “That means they didn’t have to invest any money into the training or the certifications; we did that. But it helped them staff their ambulances.”

Seeing that some firefighters would prefer to work with the department part time while working a second job elsewhere, James said, he was inspired to adopt a reserve program similar to those seen at other agencies.

The Sandy Springs Fire Department, in Sandy Springs, Ga., for example, allows certified firefighters from other departments to pick up part-time shifts in their down time, James said.

Augusta’s program would pay firefighters to work part time while they pursue other job options on the side. It would allow the department to see a return investment in the time and money it puts into training new recruits, James said.

“It would help us fill our vacancies when people call in sick, and it would help fill our vacancies when we need to send our current firefighters to some type of training,” James said. “While they’re in class, I could use a reserve firefighter to fill that position. That way, our firefighters are still getting trained and our citizens will still have ample people on the fire (trucks).”

Shaw Williams Jr., the chief of the department’s training division, said the National Fire Protection Association recommends that at least four firefighters work each fire truck per shift. The department operates 19 fire engines and five aerial ladder trucks, and rarely meets the association’s standard.

“If you have those reserve firefighters, you will be able to fill those voids,” Williams said.

As with the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office reserve deputy program, which was introduced in May, reserve firefighters would be required to hold the same qualifications as their full-time counterparts.

“They will have to be state-certified,” Williams said. “They will have to do the same amount of recertification hours, and they will be required to be first responders, also. They even have to complete the physical just like everyone else does before they are hired.”

James added that the program woud give an extra option for candidates who don’t make the initial cut.

Out of 40 well-qualified recruits, the department might have room to hire only 20. The remaining 20 would fit the bill of the reserve firefighter program, James said.

“If I end up having a firefighter move on to another job or retire, I would have another firefighter who is ready to go,” he said.

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