A heated debate in Rhome City Hall Thursday night ended with city council members narrowly approving a pair of measures to boost the city’s emergency response capability.
The council voted 3-1 to fund an EMS first responder position and approved by a 3-2 margin a measure to create an incentive program for active members of the Rhome Volunteer Fire Department.
Council members Chris Graves, Cole Blanche and Michelle Pittman voted for the incentive program while Louis Godfrey and Jo Ann Wilson voted against.
The vote was 3-1 for the first responder position with Graves, Pittman and Blanche voting for, Wilson voting against and Godfrey abstaining.
In the past year, the city has struggled to staff the fire department during regular workday hours, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Active membership has dropped to six, and those six work during the week at jobs in the Metroplex – miles from Rhome – meaning many emergency calls go unanswered. The council has been looking at ways to address the problem since early last fall.
“We’ve had three fatalities in the past three months caused by slow response,” Blanche said.
“We’ve got to do something because what is going on is not working,” Pittman said. “Even a small incentive is going to help.”
But Rhome resident Tim Robinson questioned the decision to create an incentive program to attract members for the volunteer fire department.
The definition of a volunteer is “to do charitable or helpful work without pay,” he said. “It’s the Rhome Volunteer Fire Department. If you throw incentives out there, are you not paying them? Are you going to change the sign at the station and on all the trucks?”
“I know membership has dropped,” Robinson added. “Address the root of why it has. Don’t throw money at a problem if you don’t know where it’s going.
“There is a spoiled bottle of milk up there at the fire hall that needs to be poured out.”
Wilson questioned whether the city had enough money to fund the incentive program and the EMS first responder position. She also worried about people taking advantage of the incentive program.
“The system can be jimmied,” she said.
“We do have the money for it,” Pittman said. “The lack of volunteers is not just for the fire department. We can’t get five people on the parks board.”
Godfrey said the city had an incentive program for firefighters in the past.
“We tried incentives before, and it got way out of hand,” he said. “We don’t have the money for this … We need to find out what changed. I remember a time when there were plenty of people at the department. It’s a problem, and we need to find out what it is.”
“A lot of our former members have moved or have gotten jobs elsewhere and had to quit,” said Rhome mayor and assistant fire chief Chris Moore.
“I know there are some people who quit for personal reasons,” Pittman said. “But I feel people shouldn’t let personal reasons be an excuse to not get their butt out of bed and help.
“I’ve seen the problem. I know it. But people don’t need to let those reasons keep them from wanting to help.”
Moore admitted people had abused the incentive program in the past.
But Graves said the city council will keep a close eye on it to make sure no one is abusing it.
“The city council gets to review and monitor the situation,” Graves said.
Graves also reminded the council that they approved funds for the EMS first responder position in the budget last year.
Before passing the first responder measure, Wilson made sure a line was included to require whoever was hired for the position to pass a fit-for-duty physical.
The city will now advertise for the EMS first responder position.
The first responder would be a trained medic and an employee of the city. It’s a less costly and less complicated way of providing paid personnel during the day without hiring a paid fire chief.
The job description reads, the first responder will respond “to all calls within the Rhome Volunteer Fire Department service area needing emergency and non-emergency medical treatment or care” as well as a detailed list of additional tasks.
The position will pay $30,000 to $35,000 salary plus benefits.
Qualifications for the incentive program are currently limited to active members. It includes a “daytime shift incentive” where an active volunteer commits to be available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
The incentives range from $10 to $65 depending on the qualifications of the volunteer and if they agree to spend their shift at the station. The fire chief will provide a list of station maintenance and other department work to be performed during down time while based at the station.
There are also “per call incentives” where volunteer firefighters earn up to $15 per call depending on qualifications. Personnel on the “daytime shift incentive” are not eligible to receive “per call incentives” during a shift.
The incentives will be paid monthly after review by the mayor and city council.