With its three-year anniversary coming in September, Mt. Juliet's fire department is playing catch-up with the city's exponential growth and has doubled its operations - but without doubling the staff.
"In the last 90 days, we have reached the breaking point in our ability to maintain service," said Fire Department of Mt. Juliet Deputy Chief Chris Allen.
For years the buzz was for Mt. Juliet to "put on their big boy britches and start its own fire department."
"We've put on our britches, just one leg at a time," said a determined FDMJ Chief Jamie Luffman.
The budget focus was on preserving funds for a third station, but now it's all about maintaining service.
Growing pains keep FDMJ leaders up at night, trying to stretch the budget, while thinking outside the box -- there's a squeeze on staff.
While leaders know there's a need of a third station on the north side of town, on the immediate radar is squaring things up with current operations and making sure the city is getting the biggest bang for the bucks in the current budget.
Department leaders are working overtime to overcome a staffing shortage and not only sufficiently service the city, but preparing for future growth.
While the added bonus of a $310,690 SAFER grant to hire three more firefighters was just awarded - with the city kicking in $20,000 to purchase turnout gear for the new hires and fix wage compression issues - a continued growing population, more buildings and ever increasing calls for service are looming.
Workshop tells it like it is
Very aware Mt. Juliet is the 16th fastest growing city in the nation, FDMJ's top officials presented a detailed growth assessment workshop Monday evening to city commissioners.
"It's a real time assessment of where we are now, and for the future," Luffman said after the workshop. "Right now we are making every effort to reinforce what we have -- running two paid stations and one volunteer station."
With the three new hires, FDMJ will have 21 paid firefighters, along with the chief and two assistant chiefs. There are presently 25 volunteers.
Allen led the workshop that honed in on why it was essential to go from four to seven crew per shift; the importance of alleviating the current need to "force" firefighters to work to maintain legal staffing per shift; the need to maintain morale with proper compensation; and the desire to no longer lose experienced firefighters to other jurisdictions.
"Our staffing has been challenging the last 120 days," Allen told Vice Mayor James Maness, and commissioners Brian Abston and Ray Justice who attended the workshop with other FDMJ leaders, the city manager and other city administrators.
"We are almost forcing people to work and this can't be done long term," he said. "We have significant overtime expenses, morale issues and have lost some employees."
Allen said in fiscal 2016, FDMJ volunteers donated 2,905 hours to "maintain minimum shift coverage staffing."
FDMJ was required to "force" fulltime staff members to work 409.50 hours of "extra-time" to maintain minimum staffing.
Also, many shifts were taken by officers to avoid others from being forced.
Why the alarm now?
In a short timeline, Allen noted FDMJ started operations Sept. 30, 2013 and covered half the city. On Nov. 30, 2014 operations began at the new Station 3.
"Instead of hiring the needed 12 additional fulltime employees, we were only allowed to hire six," Allen said.
"We doubled operations without doubling the staff. Our minimum and maximum staffing numbers were now the same. With little accrued leave, this worked short term."
So, when vacancies occurred, they were able to cover those with volunteer staff or overtime personnel. But, comp, sick, and vacation times accrued and staffing became a big problem.
These days, to maintain just minimum staffing, management had to at times "force" up to four employees per shift.
The negatives are the forced shifts, huge overtime costs, low morale, the inability to send employees to training due to overtime shifts, loss of employees, wasted investments in training, and, staff time trying to hire new employees to fill for those who left.
Also, Luffman was doing three jobs and staff was not available to handle anything but the crisis of the day.
Recently the department had to eliminate volunteer stipend programs, but Luffman said he is looking into other avenues to reward the volunteers.
Additionally, the Fair Labor Standards Act changed the pay cycle, thus eliminating many overtime opportunities. Shift swap options were also eliminated.
Why didn't the department didn't foresee these changes and compensate when submitting their fiscal budget in July?
Allen said these actions by FLSA were implemented after the budget process, thus there was "not time to react and respond."
Is WEMA an option?
"No," leaders said.
"They have their own jurisdiction and staffing problems," Allen said.
After the workshop Luffman noted FDMJ has struggling servicing 28 square miles.
"Wilson County has hundreds of square miles to worry about," he said.
Also, Wilson Emergency Management is a rural fire service and is on a different radio system. They have limited resources and a large service area, as well as different fire ground philosophies, noted Allen.
"WEMA is simply not part of our operational planning," he added.
'Elected leaders must decide'
Accepting funds to hire three more full timers to maintain minimum staffing and elevating officer pay grades to solve part of the pay compression issues are two good steps, fire department leaders contend.
However, there's much more to be done.
Allen says reduced staffing is definitely not an answer.
He said calls for service may be held due to lack of resources, delayed water supply and fire attack, exodus of staff, loss of confidence in FDMJ, city leaders and elected officials, increase in worker's compensation claims and a downgrade in ISO as deterrents.
Already there are overlapping calls for service. According to records, this month of the 74 calls thus far, 32 percent overlapped, which means staff was stretched to the breaking point.
Since January, overlapping calls have risen 18 percent to 32 percent.
Fire leaders are struggling with increased numbers of buildings with three floors.
Ladders on the current two engines fall a few feet short of the top levels and the two ladder trucks not staffed with full time employees.
Path down the road
For fiscal year 2017- 2018, it's "at the mercy of funding," Luffman said.
Needed is a reserve engine at $300,000. Recently two of the trucks went out of service and one needed to be borrowed from another jurisdiction while they were repaired.
On the needs list are two command vehicles at a cost of $80,000 and funds to pay the deputy and assistant chiefs at 29 hours per shift.
There is also a need for a fire inspector and the hiring of additional fulltime firefighters.
Forecast to fiscal 2018-2019 FDMJ leaders hope to assume funding for three more SAFER positions, and assist with funding a radio tower site ($750,00 additional over SAFER funding).
The construction of a third station is on the 2019-2020 needs assessment, with the purchase of a half million-dollar engine, as well as need to equip that station.
The workshop also detailed as far as 2023 with more firefighters, command vehicles and obtaining land for a fourth station in the Beckwith Corridor.
This fiscal year to date, the Under Armour facility required 24 calls and Eastgate Blvd. 14 calls, Allen said.
What now? How do we pay for it?
While it was not mentioned during the workshop, the elephant in the room was how will Mt. Juliet continue to operate its fire department in an efficient manner and meet standards of service.
Luffman said he has about $1.6 million to operate the fire department. This is funded solely by a property tax enacted in 2013.
The Chief said it was his job to provide commissioners with a "true assessment" and it's a "needs driven" department at this point.
"We presented a one, five, 10 and 15 year plan," he said. "We ranked our needs. It's their [commissioners] wheelhouse to figure out the funding.
"Our job is to present the facts and an accurate assessment, and that's exactly what Chief Allen did."
Luffman said, "We may be behind, but we are going to catch up and our plan will help us do that."
Writer Laurie Everett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org