JASPER, Ala. (WIAT) – The Jasper Fire Department is struggling with staffing shortages and firefighters worry it is impacting safety for crews and city residents.
According to fire administration, there are about 10 fewer employees than when the department was fully staffed.
“If y’all don’t do something about retaining these guys, someone is going to get hurt or killed. It almost happened,” said current firefighter Justin Vinson as he addressed city leaders at a council meeting Tuesday.
Firefighters, family members, and friends packed city hall to share frustrations and concerns after an incident last week that almost left two team members hurt.
Brittany Vinson’s husband Justin wasn’t even on the clock but still helped.
“They got paged out. They did not have enough men there, so he went on the call. He was the first in. Him and his partner went in, something happened that went bad, it could have been extremely bad. The hose caught on fire,” said Brittany Vinson.
Vinson shared a photo on social media showing her husband’s helmet that was burned and melted.
Jasper Fire Chief Dante Fields said if it wasn’t for the two firefighters experience, it could have been much worse.
“They knew what they were doing. They had the knowledge and experience to get out of there and we were really lucky with that, because we have quite a few new personnel and experience means a lot,” said Fields.
Current and former firefighters blamed low pay, reduced benefits, and a lack of support from city leadership on the reasons for the shortages.
“You’re 10 short now, probably fixing to be four more short. You know why? Because you will not pay them to go in and risk their lives to save your home [or] to save somebody’s life,” said Donnie Naramore, who is the father of a firefighter.
Naramore said firefighters often leave for other nearby departments that are paying significantly higher salaries with additional benefits.
“Entry level at Sumiton is $43,000. Entry level at Adamsville is $45,000. Entry level here is $33,000. My goodness why do you think you are 66 percent of your work force,” said Naramore.
Fields said he has gone to the Tuscaloosa Fire School to try and recruit new employees, but has found his city is behind on what it can offer.
“People were saying they were getting offers of bonuses and contractual things and this has never happened. I have never seen that before and it is just a highly competitive time,” said Fields.
City Councilor Jennifer Williams-Smith said she recognized public safety members and city employees in general were underpaid compared to other cities, citing studies from a recent municipal league conference.
We can build all these wonderful things, but if you don’t have people to protect and take care of those properties, it is not going to do any good,” said Williams-Smith
Recently, Jasper had one of the lowest pay rates in the state for a city of its size, she said.
Williams-Smith floated the idea of using federal funds from the American Rescue Plan to raise pay and increase benefits but no action was taken during Tuesday’s meeting.
Firefighters and their families hope their strength in numbers will turn up the heat on city leaders and bring additional support to the emergency department.
“This is his home and he loves his people and he loves his brothers that he worked with and our kids go to the school system and he don’t want to leave, but if that is what it takes, he will,” said Brittany Vinson.
Jasper Mayor David O’Mary refused to comment on the issue after Tuesday’s council meeting.