POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – Polk County Fire Rescue’s chief says forced overtime in his agency has reached “unhealthy” levels.

A new plan he estimates cost $1.2 million is aimed to recruit and maintain a healthier staffing level.

“The hiring pool right now, especially for paramedics, is quite thin. There’s a lot of agencies in this area experiencing the same things we are,” said Chief Robert Weech.

There are approximately 60 paramedic and firefighter vacancies within the agency, according to Chief Weech, forcing first responders to work mandatory overtime shifts.

Often it is forced on them after a 24-hour shift.

“When is the last time you all have checked on your field employees to see how they’re holding up?” the wife of a PCFR employee asked county commissioners at a recent meeting.

“Where is their mental health break?” asked another concerned resident.

On any given day in January, an average of 23 Polk County Fire Rescue workers were forced to work overtime.

“From an overtime perspective, there’s a healthy amount of overtime and there’s an unhealthy amount of overtime. Certainly, we’ve moved into the unhealthy part,” said Chief Weech.

The plan approved by county commissioners includes hiring a full-time staff recruiter.

“We’re going to make sure that we’re at all the academies, at all the colleges making sure that folks know who we are because there’s a lot of positive things going on at Polk County Fire Rescue right now,” said Chief Weech.

New hires will be offered an $8,000 bonus after signing a 4-year contract. If the employee leaves within that time, they must return the money.

The county will also pay for new hires to go through 11-months of paramedic training, which is recommended but not required.

“We’ve been aggressive. We’ve done the things that other departments have done. We’ve worked hard but we just got to the point where we think that we need to go above and beyond and we need to do things that are outside what the other agencies are doing,” said Chief Weech.

The president of Polk County Professional Firefighters Local 3531 is optimistic these changes will help reduce mandatory overtime.

“We’ve had some challenges and I think that what they’re proposing will hopefully get some more firefighters come to us and keep the ones we have,” said Lee Stringer, the union president.

But, he says, there is still work to do when it comes to retaining experienced first responders.

“That 10-15, 10-20 year mark, there’s not a lot. Because we’ve lost a lot of them. We need to try to attract people from other places,” he said.

Stringer says PCFR’s starting wage is competitive, at nearly $15/hour, with neighboring agencies but falls short when it comes to raises.

“It seems like people are actually looking at us now and their eyes have widened. Again, I don’t want to make it like it’s just us. Everyone’s having the same problem,” said Stringer. “If we keep losing people and we can’t attract people, I don’t know what we’re gonna do.”

Chief Weech said the changes can be implemented immediately but it takes time to recruit new staff and get them trained.