RUSHVILLE – Mayor Mike Pavey has announced a change or two regarding how the Rushville Fire Department operates.
Pavey noted that the city of Rushville has enjoyed top quality service from its fire department for decades, and said in a recent news release that there continues to be a proud tradition of providing that service to the community.
Moving forward with the necessary changes, improvements, and innovations without sacrificing that proud tradition has been a priority for the current administration for many years, he said. It has been and continues to be complicated and difficult, but it is necessary.
Pavey said Rushville’s Fire and Emergency Medical Services (Fire/EMS) Department is a vital member of the city’s entire Stellar team.
The decision to add ambulance service (EMS) allowed the department to grow from 16 to 23 full-time employees. Those employees became cross-trained/dual role firefighter/emergency services workers. Pavey said the city administration and the fire department took great pride in those advances. It allowed the community to continue to enjoy the tradition of top quality fire protection while adding EMS coverage.
“This has not come without growing pains and challenges, though,” the mayor said. “Communities of our size struggle to maintain a fire/EMS department structure like we have. Offering competitive base pay and benefit packages to stay viable and prevent turnover is difficult. Landing on and maintaining the right number of total staff, minimum shift counts, and balance of fire and medical personnel are all part of this complex structure.”
There are many additional issues to consider, he said, citing ratio of management-level personnel to run responders per shift, command structure, coordination of fire/EMS with other departments, run distribution (fire versus medical), civilian versus traditional fire employee, department training, and implementation of a feeder system as examples.
Pavey said living within a budget that is constrained by property tax caps as well as unstable and/or shrinking revenues from other sources severely limits what can be done financially. At either extreme end of a spectrum of opinions, there are those who say our fire department should be a volunteer department versus those who say we need staffing and pay comparable to communities much larger than Rushville in assessed value and population, he continued.
“It’s a balancing act,” Pavey said. “When I became mayor, many were calling for a reduction in our employee numbers. Instead of surrendering to the small-town trend, Chief Chuck Jenkins and I worked together to innovate. We introduced the ambulance service within the city limits. As that service became solvent, we were invited, and accepted the invitation, to bid on providing ambulance service to Rush County. We were awarded that contract, and that allowed us to add seven employees to the department.”
Recently, the RFD has experienced extremely high employee turnover, leaving the department short-staffed. Pavey said the department has continued to provide high quality service to the city of Rushville and the county’s middle district, but that has come at the higher cost of paying more overtime to existing staff.
“Knowing that this would not be financially sustainable long-term, Fire Chief Wayne Munson reduced the minimum required staffing level by one per shift. This does not mean staffing must be reduced; it merely establishes a new minimum staffing level. Rushville and the middle district will continue to receive the same level of service uninterrupted, but hopefully this will help reduce the amount of paid overtime and allow the department to stay within budget,” Pavey said. “This is not an everyday situation, but we will continue to explore all available options. Management, for example, needs to be flexible enough to backfill shortages, possibly go on more runs, when shifts are shorter-staffed.”
Paid on-call personnel is another option being explored.
The minimum required staffing level reduction does not reduce the department’s total staff. Current vacancies have resulted from attrition. No employees have been fired, furloughed, or laid off, and there are no plans to do so, according to the mayor.
In the exit interviews of those employees who have left, low base pay has been cited repeatedly as a major reason for departure. Low base pay puts the department at a competitive disadvantage when trying to attract and retain employees with the experience and qualifications that fit the department’s needs. Both the department and city administration acknowledge this problem, but an agreeable solution has been elusive. The solution to the problem involves figuring out how to achieve a base pay increase that is significant enough to be competitive while remaining within budgetary constraints, Pavey indicated in the news release.
“There is a contingent that would like to maintain the department’s current staffing standard of 23 paid full-time firefighters and increase base pay. That is an unachievable and unsustainable option. No other community of our size has been able to staff their department at the numbers Rushville has,” the mayor stated. “A more reasonable and sustainable option could be to do more with less. Many communities of our size are operating this way already. For Rushville, this could involve keeping the current budget level but reducing the full-time staffing standard and redistributing the eliminated full-time salaries to the base pay of the remaining full-time staff. Maintaining services may also require restructuring to add paid on-call personnel and/or part-time employees to continue to provide adequate coverage. This is certainly not a new option. City administration and department leadership have been aware of its potential for many years, but the department has shown reluctance to move in that direction.”
He went on to say that he has worked like no other mayor to keep the fire/EMS department sustainable, but to do that his administration is going to have to continue to tweak the system.
“We are at a point where we have to evolve,” Pavey stated.
“Looking at the service we provide now, the department does five or six medical runs for every fire run,” Rushville City Council President Bradley Berkemeier said. “Fighting fires and providing ambulance service are both important, life-saving endeavors, but the fact is we do more medical work than fire work now. Until everyone develops a better appreciation for that, I think we will continue to struggle to unite to make the changes that are needed.”
Elected officials and department leadership have been working to develop a system that will entice qualified new applicants. At the same time, they are working to encourage current members of the department to seek professional development opportunities and to engage more with the community in their public safety capacity.
In addition to working with department leadership, Mayor Pavey has sought advice and input from other communities’ fire/EMS leadership. He has also called upon Rushville Police Chief Craig Tucker to aid in the process, and said Tucker’s leadership and public safety experience have added valuable insight.
“Everyone is working hard to insure we come out of this with the best possible department for both our employees and our citizens,” Chief Tucker said. “We will continue to work to balance our responsibility to the public’s safety needs with our duty to be fiscally responsible agents of their tax dollars.”