Polk Fire Rescue staffing crisis caused ‘downgrades in service’ Halloween weekend, union says

Polk County

POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – Halloween weekend saw “major downgrades in service” due to incomplete crews and staffing shortages at Polk County Fire Rescue, according to the union representing 650 firefighters.

“We had some staffing shortages. We are in a staffing crisis as it is,” said Vernon Austin, grievance chairman for Polk County Professional Firefighters – IAFF Local 3531.

Austin claims eight crews included a captain, an engineer and a firefighter “trainee,” who would not typically be on his or her own.

“We had several new hires, trainees, firefighters-in-training, that have not been cleared to operate on their own in the field on an apparatus without a training officer,” Austin said.

Polk Fire Rescue Chief Robert Weech calls the claim “untrue” and “misleading.”

“All new hires are state-certified, have attended a minimum standards class consisting of 398 hours and have satisfied all our firefighter orientation requirements,” he said.

Chief Weech described an “additional step” where new firefighters ride along with a three-person crew to achieve a “desired comfort level” for new hires.

“This step ensures operational capabilities at a high level, is a ‘desired’ step of the new firefighters and one we work hard to provide,” said Chief Weech.

That practice was not available to some new firefighters this weekend, the chief said.

One crew was downsized from a three-person crew to a two-person crew due to a family illness.

“We will get the job done, one way or the other. We were successful. There was no major incidents throughout the weekend,” Austin said.

Mandatory overtime continues to be utilized for Polk County firefighters.

“The mandatory overtime for [Aug. 2020 – Aug. 2021] was 89,484 hours of mandatory overtime distributed. That equaled about $2.5 million,” Austin said.

Chief Weech said in the last 13 weeks, there were between 13-14 mandatory overtime shifts every day, making up 6.8% of the total daily shifts.

The union claims 25 employees have resigned since August 30, 2021, citing a lack of competitive wages and benefits compared to surrounding agencies.

According to Chief Weech, 17 people have resigned but he has also hired 39 new firefighters. Twenty more are expected to begin work on Monday.

Union leaders will meet with Deputy County Manager Joe Halman on Wednesday to discuss these staffing concerns, according to Austin.

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