Monday, September 25, 2023

WB to boost understaffed fire department with three new positions, deputy chief

Wrightsville Beach has included an additional three firefighters and a deputy chief in next fiscal year’s budget. (Port City Daily/File)

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — A local beach town has included an additional three firefighters and a deputy chief in next fiscal year’s budget. 

Last week, the town released its proposed budget, which includes a $210,390 addition to the fire department’s almost $2 million budget. A portion of the funds will be used to hire additional staff, beginning January 2024, that Chief Josh Harraway had been requesting. 

READ MORE: WB to apply for $1M grant to bulk up fire department staff

Harraway outlined the need for six new positions in a February presentation to the board of aldermen. He persuaded the board to apply for the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant, which would cover the six positions — three firefighters, three fire engineers — in part for the next three years. 

The town is still seeking the grant, which has yet to be awarded. Harraway told Port City Daily the three positions were a contingency if the town did not receive the funds. 

“The game plan is if we are awarded the grant and the Town of Wrightsville Beach chooses to accept the grant, the three firefighter positions will be turned back into reserves,” Harraway wrote in an email. “However, if we are not awarded the grant, the hiring of three firefighters is a gradual step toward adding personnel to the fire department.” 

The town is expecting notice by the fall. The grant would reach over a million dollars in payouts over three years, funding 100% of costs. After that, the town would have to pay. According to Haraway, the department would reduce part-time employees and undergo some restructuring to leave the town with a $275,000 to $300,000 overall annual contribution.

Harraway did not provide salary information for the new positions, as the town is still “ironing it out.” He told PCD in February they would be entry-level and firefighters would be paid $40,000.

The proposed budget also includes over $27,042 more for ocean rescue lifeguards to cover $465,000 in personnel, $113,750 in operations, and $47,250 in capital. The lifeguards relieve some of the strain on the fire department. 

The Wrightsville Beach Fire Department has 13 certified full-time firefighters and 15 part-time members. The department also employs 25 paid on-call members, college interns and volunteers that receive stipends for their service. Only two are certified; eight have EMT basic certifications. 

During his February presentation, Haraway explained the lack of certified firefighters threatens the department’s quick-response time and safety of its employees. On-call members without certification can only operate in support roles — they can’t enter burning buildings nor administer EMS — and can lack experience and training.

Only three career firefighters are on shift at a time, so maintaining a safe number of employees for each call is challenging. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration maintains a “two in, two out” rule for hazardous situations. In the event of a structure fire, two people should enter the building while two remain outside in support. 

During busy summer months, maintaining adequate staff at a scene can be near impossible. 

With six more employees — three firefighters and three fire engineers — the department can add two more personnel to each shift. According to Haraway’s calculations, firefighters can make entry at 2 minutes 47 seconds after the call, rather than 5 minutes and 51 seconds with current staffing.

Compared to other coastal communities, Wrightsville Beach has one of the lowest numbers of people per shift. With a year-round population of 2,500 people, Wrightsville Beach staffs three per shift, while nearby Carolina Beach (pop: 6,500) has five, Atlantic Beach (pop: 2,000) staffs four, Nags Head (pop: 3,000) has eight, and Surf City (pop: 3,200) uses six. Aside from Carolina Beach, each of those municipalities has lower firefighter-to-citizen ratios; each one also has more people employed overall.

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