ESD Board tables split-shift change
By Christine Bolaños
The Williamson County Emergency Services District #4 Commissioners tabled action on converting the fire department’s split shift staff into full-time employees.
Though they agreed with Fire Chief Anthony Lincoln’s recommendation that more full-time firefighters are needed to serve an ever-increasing population, they said they needed to know how such a change would impact the budget before making a decision.
Lincoln said the idea for the change came from the staff who are affected daily with the way the split-shift program works.
He said the program began in May 2008 with six people. There were two people per shift who worked every other shift with a starting pay of $10 per hour.
That split-shift position brought Liberty Hill fire department’s daily staffing to four.
“And that allowed us to run a two-person engine and a two-person squad,” Lincoln said.
He said growth and the organization’s needs allowed for the hiring of a second set of split-shifters in October 2011.
This increased daily staffing to five, which then allowed for the implementation of a battalion chief.
In October 2014, the department hired three full-time employees from the group of split-shifters.
Of 12, the remaining nine split-shifters began working on every third shift.
“Some of them were kind of interested in cutting their work hours back and so they were interested in doing that,” Lincoln said. “It has some real advantages to us because they were still around us working regularly.”
He said the fire department hopes to hire more split-shifters on full time in the future.
“Through attrition we have lost several of those original nine people,” Lincoln said.
Annual personnel cost for split shifters is $106,689.
“We get about six years out of our PPE (personal protective equipment) and you figure you have to put nine sets of gear on those people to build personnel on that truck,” he said. Projected PPE cost is $2,500 a year. Projected uniform cost for extra people is $1,500. Swift water PPE costs $500 and training costs $2,500.
“Here’s a number that is astounding a little bit,” Lincoln said. “The regular crews change at 7 a.m. The split-shifters, because you’re trying to use all these part-timers, they don’t get here until 8 o’clock because a lot of them get off work at 7 somewhere else and they come to us.”
Lincoln said he makes a spreadsheet every year that shows the average hourly rate from top to bottom is $17 an hour.
“That’s taking firefighter to battalion chief,” he said. “If you take that one hour that the day crews are waiting on people to get here times a whole year we’re basically spending about $24,000 waiting on split-shifters to come to work for us.”
Lincoln was quick to state this does not necessarily mean firefighters are picking up on these split-shifters’ work. However, there is still an impact.
“We always have to schedule meetings and stuff around them because of that 8 o’clock change shift for them,” Lincoln said.
He also noted the time staff spends filling vacancies.
“You got nine people that are taking off from their other job. This is like a secondary job to them,” he said. “And the other thing is we are currently behind market on what other areas pay.”
Benefits of split shift Lincoln said the program has given the ESD the opportunity to work with staff for several years to observe work ethic and dependability. The individuals have had an opportunity to work within the organization and develop skill sets while understanding organizational culture.
Negatives of split shift
He pointed out many negatives.
“Even with our part-time staff we do what we call constant staffing,” Lincoln said. “We don’t have any relief people built into our system. If somebody takes off we have to hire somebody back to work so that’s what we call constant staffing in the fire service.”
Even with part-time staff there are times the department has to fill vacancies with full-timers because the department can’t get in touch with the part-timers. There has been a reduced number of staff members to fill vacancies with full-time staff. The department can’t hold non full-timers.
“Daily, if someone calls in sick, if we can’t get somebody else, we’ll hold somebody from this shift for the next shift to work that deal,” Lincoln said.
This means there are potentially nine people who can call in sick because they are split-shifters instead of three potential full-time firefighters.
“We still wouldn’t get away from this, but we could cut it down to three if y’all chose to do this,” Lincoln said.
He also noted staff turnover due to burnout.
“They’re working a full-time job in a fire department somewhere else and a half-time one here. It’s got to be working on some of these guys,” Lincoln said. “And you can tell with their attitude because they treat it as a part-time job. They want to come here to rest and we need you engaged while you’re here. We need you to be our employee while you’re here.”
In call-back situations, these part-timers are committed to their full-time jobs.
“So basically we’re borrowing employees from other organizations,” Lincoln said. “Their dedication to our organization is limited due to their standing responsibilities with their own organization. They get held for their job. They stay there and we can’t do anything about it. We know their part-time for us and their responsibility is to their primary employer.”
What hiring three full-time firefighters means
Lincoln reported the cost for hiring three full-time firefighters is $155,528.
“We’re about $48,000 apart,” Lincoln said.
He said due to the organization’s growth there is a need for stability and growing “longevity.” The fire department will hire three firefighters at mid-year from within the organization during the upcoming hiring process. These positions were already approved in the budget. He said nine to 11 existing part-time employees are interested in working full time.
“Some of them have been with us for a long time and they’re committed to wanting to work full time for us,” he said. “We’ve already invested our time and money in training and developing these staff members.”
With plans to open a new fire station in the Liberty Hill fire district, Lincoln said it would be prudent to hire staff already familiar with the organization. The impact Even with additional full-time hires, Lincoln said the fire department would still have less than 21 staff members allowing it to continue to qualify for Texas Forestry Service grants.
“Those people are already in the count,” Lincoln said.
He said the fire department currently has 13 full-timers including himself.
“Of course when we hire people full time we are impacted by the benefits such as vacation and holiday time that comes in the deal,” Lincoln said. “We’re only hiring halfway through the year so we’re only seeing half the expense associated with anything like that. So that $48,000 difference would be $24,000. Then we’d have to absorb the full costs next year.”
Board feedback Commissioners agreed there is a need for more full-time staff, but after much hesitation decided not to take action and tabled the item until the summer months when the ESD is expected to start seeing revenue come in from the recently-passed sales tax election. Commissioner James Crabtree asked how many of Liberty Hill’s full-time firefighters work split-shift elsewhere.
“We’ve got probably of our own crews I think there’s like four,” Lincoln said. “Some work in Hutto, Marble Falls and Burnet.”
Concerned about possible burnout, Crabtree asked if there are any laws in effect that limit hours that can be worked.
“Not really. We have a rule of 72 hours consecutive here,” Lincoln said. “I don’t know what other fire departments do. Seventy-two hours is the max and you have to have 24 hours off. But that’s our policy.”
Commissioner Sandra Taylor pointed out the rule is based on Liberty Hill’s call volume. Lincoln said battalion chiefs are responsible for ensuring firefighters get rest as needed.
“It’s a tough scenario for us. As we’re growing the program served us well,” Lincoln said. “There comes a time where you want them to be your employees. You don’t want to share them.”
Taylor clarified if Lincoln was asking commissioners to okay converting the last set of split-shifters to full time. Lincoln confirmed.
“We’re hiring three mid-year and then we’re looking at converting up three over here,” Lincoln said.
This means the fire department would have a pool of part-timers and full-time staff but no split shifters.
“The split shifts are limited by hours,” Lincoln explained. “They can only work so many hours a year so we’re really limited on those.”
Commissioner James Baker pointed out the risk of losing some good employees with doing away with the split-shift program. Lincoln said they could potentially hire six of the nine full-time allowing the fire department to keep a “good chunk” of them.
Commissioners reiterated their desire to see how bringing in an additional three split-shifters on as full time would impact the fire district’s budget. They asked for a more detailed breakdown with more concrete numbers. Lincoln said it would cost about $48,000.
“It’s hard to say,” Lincoln said. “I would have to do a mid-year budget.”
“So you think we’ve got it in the budget?” Taylor asked him.
“I don’t know if we’ve got it in the budget, but I think we’ve got it closer than we think,” Lincoln said. “I know a lot of things happened last year but we’ve also got a lot of revenue things that are coming forward for us.”
Commissioner Dan Clark wanted to know if the additional $48,000 included benefits. Lincoln said it does.
“That’s for a full year. It’d be $24,000 to do it this year,” Lincoln said. “We don’t build that much padding in there, but I guess there were some things that just happened to work out last year.”
Clark noted the hesitation from his fellow commissioners.
“I definitely see the benefits, but I agree with Dan,” Crabtree said. “I’m always a little cautious about certain commitments.”
“After adding headcount so recently how would it be perceived if we added again,” Baker said.
Taylor clarified the department isn’t adding new staff, but converting split-shifters to full-timers.
“If we postpone this what happens to those guys,” asked Commissioner Kirk Lowe.
“Nothing,” Lincoln said. “We could hire three off the list and then if we decide to do it we would go back. I wouldn’t wait over a year.”
The first set come in as full-timers in April.
“I can see how it makes staffing much easier and I can appreciate that,” Baker said.
“And, I guess we would have them full-time, we wouldn’t have to worry about them not being capable if they worked an all-nighter somewhere,” Taylor said. “They’d be more alert at their job.”
Lincoln said the greatest benefit would be that Liberty Hill could hold these employees or call them back if needed because they would be classified full-time.
“You’re at a fire, the shift has ended, those guys have to leave,” Taylor said. “Then what do you do?”
“We try to get a hold of some more of our people,” Lincoln said. “You don’t always get anybody.”
Clark asked for it to be included in a proposed budget.
“In order to tell an additional three firefighters you’ve got to know they’re with you for the long haul,” said Crabtree. “In my mind it’s got to be a 100-percent we can afford them, we’re going to bring them on, we can afford them.”
Lincoln said he can provide those numbers in the budget in October.
“I guess we’ll look at it as a program going into next year’s budget,” Lincoln said.
“I think it shows good faith to the firefighters here, doesn’t it, that we’re bringing three of them on full time,” Crabtree said. “So they know that the goal is to increase. We all know we’ve got to hire more full-time folks. It’s just a question of how do we stagger it so that everything balances so there’s not a hole.”
Commissioners agreed to go over the item again in July once the ESD starts seeing revenue from the sales tax. Lincoln said staff will be working on next year’s budget by then.
“I hope you will let them know that we’re bringing in the first three of the nine full time and the plan is to continually bring more on as the budget grows,” Crabtree said. “As revenue grows. But until then I think it’s just when you’re saying it’d be close, we’re not really sure, we’ve got to wait.”
• Commissioners welcomed incoming board member Kirk Lowe. Lowe was appointed by Williamson County Commissioner Cynthia Long and attended his first meeting Jan. 25.
• Commissioners authorized staff to reallocate the 2015/16 budget funding to purchase a squad vehicle
• Commissioners got an update on the proposed annexation and/or ETJ control of WCESD#4 territory by the City of Leander during executive session. They took no action in open session.
• The department responded to 111 incidents during December according to the Fire Chief’s report. 69 percent of those incidents were categorized as “rescue and medical.”
• The department responded to 1,285 incidents in 2015 — 65 percent were categorized as “rescue and medical.”
• Liberty Hill will take part in live fire burns scheduled in Georgetown during April 5-7.
• The average increase in call volume for the last four years is 6 percent, while the increase for 2015 was 10 percent.
• The next board meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 29.