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Midland Fire struggles with staffing issues, presents town council with possible solution
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Midland Fire struggles with staffing issues, presents town council with possible solution

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Midland Town Council meeting

Midland Fire's Brian Ward spoke with the town council about a possible way for full-time drivers to receive state retirement benefits. 

The town of Midland is looking into a contract with the Midland Volunteer Fire Department that would allow full-time fire employees to receive retirement benefits.

At the town council’s January meeting, Brian Ward with the Midland Fire Department said the fire department has suffered major staffing issues recently.

To help fix that, the fire department wants to hire six full-time drivers.

“We want full time, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year paid drivers at each station,” Ward said.

To be competitive in the job market, the department needs to be able to offer retainment benefits, Ward said.

Since the department cannot currently offer state retirement, it can enter into an employee lease agreement with the town that would allow it.

Ward proposed an employee lease agreement that would allow the new drivers to be considered full-time employees of the town and receive full benefits but fall under the command of the fire chief.

“Staffing is a challenge,” Ward said. “With the increase in call load, the increase in demand, we push and push continually for more staff and more funding. Over last summer, we ran quite a few events where we were very short on staff to the point where we didn’t have drivers at both stations. We didn’t have adequate firefighters on the trucks.”

The department currently has 56 people on the roster — 44 are active part time or full time and 12 are volunteer. The volunteer firefighters make up less than 25% of response to calls, Ward said. The rest is majority part-time employees.

In fiscal year 2020-21, the department had 4,319 total shifts, and 14% of those shifts were unmanned. The department had a minimum of one driver, one firefighter and one officer at each station per shift. To help with staff shortages, it reduced the minimum staffing to one firefighter and driver at each station per shift.

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Ward said since the department staff is made up mostly of part-time employees, it relies on their availability. Many part-timers have shifts in departments across the county. Having full-time employees will ensure someone is there for every shift.

A few other nearby fire departments, like Cornelius-Lemley Fire & Rescue, have similar agreements with their municipal governments to allow for retirement benefits for full-time employees.

“What we know is, if we are able to offer benefits, including state retirement, then we can increase our applicants 10-fold because that gives them job security and also they have a stable schedule,” Ward said. “The employee would be an employee of the town and receive the same full-time benefits as a full-time town employee and would be paid by the town.”

The fire department would handle interviews and the hiring process and then provide a list of employees to the town. The employees would receive their paychecks from the town as well. The fire department would reimburse the town monthly for all payroll expenses associated with leasing the employees, including pay, insurances and benefits.

The six drivers would be split between Fire Stations 1 and 2. The drivers would be on a three-shift schedule and each driver would work one shift. This would ensure that the stations have a driver at all times.

Ward also said he would like the drivers’ pay to start at $15 an hour.

Having full-time drivers, Ward said, will help bump the numbers back up.

Former Midland Fire Chief and Council member Allen Burnette spoke in favor of the proposal. He said that over the years, more departments in the area have relied on part-time employees to fill out staffing. But with the increase in demand, the pool of part-time employees hasn’t gotten any bigger, and it is now harder to fill up a schedule with part-time employees. With full-time employees, the department will know that it has drivers available. Burnette said offering a full-time position with benefits will attract more applicants.

“What he is proposing is something that has been talked about for years,” Burnette said. “It isn’t new.”

Many of the current part-time employees are retired firefighters from the Charlotte Fire Department, Ward said.

“The biggest thing the town has that we need is the ability to offer state retirement,” he explained. “With the biggest department in the state right next to us, Charlotte Fire Department guys will retire there after 25 years of service and have their retirement through the city of Charlotte. A lot of guys there will come out looking for careers to be in for five, 10, 15 years and access a secondary retirement. If we have the ability to draw state retirement, we will draw their attention. We already use them but as part-time employees.”

The council voted to have town staff members investigate the legal requirements and logistics to create the contract between the town and fire department. Once town staffers come back to the council with more information, the council will vote on the proposal at a later meeting.

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