The union leaders who have long pushed for substantial raises took Dickens’ statement to mean experienced firefighters could get raises of $10,000 or more — which the study recommends — to make Atlanta competitive with other local fire departments.
But when the specific pay scales of Dickens’ proposed budget were later released, the union and councilmembers discovered the raises for most firefighters were lower than they had expected.
Under the mayor’s proposal, firefighters who have been with the department for 10 years, for example, would get raises of just under $5,000 to bring their salary to about $60,000, rather than the $68,000 suggested in the 2019 pay study, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of pay data reveals.
“They are let down and confused, honestly,” Nate Bailey, president of the union, said of his members. “I think there are a lot of firefighters that don’t even know they’re not getting (the larger raise).”
The Atlanta Fire Rescue Department has one of the more closely watched budgets at Atlanta City Hall this year as the City Council analyzes the city’s spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1.
The department now has about 800 sworn employees, and a whopping 150 vacancies. It is responsible for responding to tens of thousands of calls for fires and EMS emergencies annually. That staffing number has been under 900 for over a year and a half.
More than 100 recruits are currently in training, but the department has attrition issues as well.
In just the first three months of this year, 82 people left the department: 48 resigned, 22 retired and 12 were fired, according to a presentation given to the City Council. Retirements and resignations have increased since late 2020, according to an AJC analysis of department data.
“We, along with other employers, are struggling with hiring credible people to work,” fire Chief Roderick Smith said, adding that fire departments across the nation are grappling with staffing issues. “One of our biggest challenges is getting people through training.”
The implications of being under-staffed are wide-ranging, and has compounded with staffing issues at Grady EMS, with firefighters now bearing more of a burden to respond to medical calls, often waiting at scenes for ambulances for arrive.
In recent years, Bailey said, firefighters have left for other fire departments, or for jobs in trucking or policing at agencies including the GBI, FBI and Atlanta police.
Until numbers increase, the city’s 36 fire stations are having to adapt.
While it’s optimal for fire departments to staff engine or ladder trucks with four firefighters each when responding to a call, Atlanta often has to reduce that number to three, the chief said, a move that affects “some operations, but not all.”
It can prolong response times once at a fire or medical emergency, since there are fewer people to carry heavy equipment. The department supplements those shortages by sending in engines from additional fire stations that may be further away.
More employees are also having to work overtime to staff the firetrucks. Bailey said some have worked back-to-back 48-hour shifts to fill staffing gaps.
Meanwhile, the department’s response times to fires have been slower, data suggests. In February of 2021, for example, the department’s total response time to 90% of emergency fire calls was 7 minutes, 46 seconds. For February of this year, it was 9 minutes, 13 seconds.
Some councilmembers now say they worry the staffing issues at the fire department will only continue if firefighters don’t get the larger raises they originally expected.
“Why do a study if you’re not going to fully implement it?” said Councilman Dustin Hillis, who chairs the council’s public safety committee. “I don’t want to have to vote against a budget over a few million dollars and a study.”
Study: Lift midpoint salaries by 34%
Much of the discussion surrounds a 2019 pay study conducted by Mercer, a salary data company. The study found that Atlanta’s fire salaries were below that of departments in Sandy Springs and Cobb County, and peer cities like Nashville, Philadelphia and Phoenix.
The option that would cost the least recommended lifting the midpoint of firefighters’ salaries by 34%, incrementally over four years.
So Bailey was encouraged to hear Dickens announce in early May that the raises in his budget “will meet or exceed recommendations from the Mercer pay and class study, and we’re doing it a year ahead of schedule.”
But an analysis of fire department data shows the proposed raises for most rank-and-file firefighters are less than those suggested in the Mercer study, while higher ranks in the department would see larger raises than what was recommended.
Fire recruits wouldn’t see an increase to their starting salary of $40,000 under the current budget proposal, though the pay study recommended a $10,000 raise for them. The proposed entry-level pay for firefighters who are new graduates from the fire academy is about in line with what the study recommended.
The 2019 pay study recommended only marginal raises for the department’s deputy chiefs, who make nearly $120,000. But the mayor’s budget proposes a nearly $9,000 raise for them this year. That’s more than any other employee would get. Battalion chiefs and assistant chiefs would also see higher raises than recommended.
The mayor’s office said its proposed pay scales are based on a previous plan made under former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ administration to phase in 25% raises for firefighters over three and a half years. Dickens’ budget proposal completes that plan a year ahead of schedule and slightly exceeds it.
That plan was based on some of the findings of the 2019 pay study — and the cost of the two plans are about the same — though it didn’t follow the recommendations exactly. Bottoms’ administration further spreads out raises throughout the department’s ranks to address pay compression. Another pay study for all city employee’s is also on the horizon for the next year, Dickens’ office said.
But to councilmembers and union leadership, giving larger raises to rank-and-file employees now is a top priority so they can attract and retain new firefighters. They have pointed out that recommendations from a similar pay study for the Atlanta Police Department in 2018 were fully implemented.
The budget can be amended before the council votes on it later this month; Bailey said discussions about the pay scales are ongoing,
“It’s almost kind of like an insult to say one agency is worth 100% of their pay study and another organization is not,” Bailey said.
Department officials are working to bolster recruitment efforts. The fire department, along with the Atlanta Fire Rescue Foundation, recently celebrated the first “Cadet Signing Day,” a program that gives local high school graduates offer letters to join the department.
“That is huge for the future of the fire service,” Smith said. “The needs of the city are constantly changing, so we’re going to adapt with that.”