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OPINION: Fire dept. staffing should be first priority for city, county

After two fire apparatus had to be “browned out” over the weekend, it is clear that addressing the shortage of firefighters, paramedics and EMTs in our community should be of utmost importance, dare we say first priority, for our city and county governments.

That is not to say that the two agencies are not already working on the issue — we know it has been a hot topic for both agencies, especially over the last year. The city has been working closely with Winchester Fire-EMS to come up with ways to recruit and retain firefighters. The city and county have developed a joint committee to discuss the shortage, recruitment and retainment, funding and more.

We know that the agencies are looking at the issue carefully, but it is time to take some sort of action to improve the situation.

As detailed by Sun reporter Fred Petke in a front-page article published Tuesday, both the city and county faced such severe shortages this weekend that each had to park trucks and reassign personnel.

On Saturday, Clark County Fire Department browned out its Engine 2, for a lack of available personnel. Sunday, Winchester Fire-EMS parked its ladder truck, Truck 3, for the same reason.

Both agencies have been struggling to attract new employees and retain current ones, even to maintain minimum staffing.

“All sides acknowledge the situation is complex, and quick fixes have not been found. Interest in the profession seems to have reduced, and competition for paramedics from the private sector has grown as well,” Petke reported. “Salaries are another issue, between neighboring departments and the private sector.”

One major aspect of the issue that needs to be addressed is pay. It is unfair to ask people to work as firefighters and EMTs for $9 or $10 an hour.

These jobs require training and need to be filled by highly-skilled individuals who are literally saving lives each day. They are priceless, really, but they deserve much more than they are being offered right now.

It is sad these employees are working sometimes 120 hours a week to make sure our departments are sufficiently staffed. It is unrealistic to expect overworked emergency personnel will continue to be able to maintain this level of overtime.

Moreso, when the individuals are overworked and tired, they will not be at their best to respond to potential emergencies. That leads to more accidents and increased risks for those in need of help.

These are people who are driving ambulances, providing life-saving medical care to people in the back of a moving vehicle, running into burning buildings, rescuing people from terrible car accidents and more. They need to be at their best. They can’t be at their best if they are overworked and  underpaid.

The city and county need to quickly look at ways to make Clark County and Winchester Fire-EMS more attractive to qualified applicants. The best way to do that right now is to make us competitive with other departments in the state. That requires looking at the budget and finding avenues to increase funding, and therefore pay, for the brave men and women who are part of our fire departments.

While we think valuing our emergency personnel is important, it is most important to make sure our community is sufficiently prepared for whatever emergency may arise. We know that is also the greatest concern of the men and women who are currently employed at our fire departments. 

Had there been a dangerous fire situation over the weekend, we don’t believe our community would have been able to safely and adequately respond.

The thing about emergencies is you never know when they will arise, we have to be well-prepared. Right now, it seems Winchester-Clark County is not.

We hope the city and county will continue to take this issue seriously. That they will listen intently to the people employed in these departments and the leadership there about how to make sure we don’t risk “browning out” ever again.

Editorials represent the opinion of the newspaper’s editorial board. The board is comprised of publisher Michael Caldwell and Bluegrass Newsmedia editors Whitney Leggett and Ben Kleppinger. To inquire about a meeting with the board, contact Caldwell at 759-0095.