HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - The Hattiesburg City Council approved an adjustment to its budget to give Hattiesburg firefighters raises and to increase the department's number of temporary recruit positions, allowing it to hold a training academy.
Ninety-one members of the Hattiesburg Fire Department will receive a $2,400 raise after the council's vote on Tuesday.
"Something that's much needed," Fire Chief Paul Presley said. "It's a $2,400 raise. We just increased the starting salary from $22,000 to $30,000 actually, so that's going to be beneficial to the whole department."
The salary increase comes after a WDAM 7 News investigation revealed the department was understaffed, but spent more than $1 million in overtime.
"We are also in the process of providing an increase in pay to the sworn firefighters of $2,400 per year for each sworn firefighter," Hattiesburg's Chief Financial Officer Sharon Waits said. "We're doing that in a manner that will be budget neutral, so that it really does not make an impact on our general fund."
Presley said better pay should boost morale and retention throughout the department.
"Oh definitely it'll help the morale," Presley said. "(That's) the biggest thing, and of course, it'll keep our people from going to other departments."
If the pay raises lead to more people with more experience staying with the Hattiesburg Fire Department, Presley said residents could see better fire protection.
"You'll have more experienced people instead of, right now, we're a very young department," Presley said. "We just graduated a young group of guys. They're great guys, and of course we're going to have another young group of guys. Right now, we've got guys that have been here three or four years being promoted to engineers, so hopefully that'll all change in the years to come."
Along with keeping the employees he already has, Presley hopes better pay leads to better recruitment.
"Mainly the retention of the people we have now, and hopefully it will attract some newer guys," he said. "Over the years our academy classes, our entry level, you might have 150 people apply, but maybe only 60 show up. So we're trying to increase those numbers as well."
The city is also helping the department boost its new recruits by funding a total of 15 temporary positions to allow Presley to hold a fire training academy.
"We don't have positions for the chief to start the academy, so we are going to create temporary 15 spots," said Kim Bradley, Ward 1 councilman. "We will fund those. We're just doing this temporary to get through the emergency. This is just simply something to fix the immediate need that we have because we need to get the academy started."
Waits said, "What we're doing is adding five temporary positions for firefighter recruits, and those positions are important for us to be able to hold an academy class for new firefighters."
Presley said, "The state only allows us to have 15 people in the academy at a time. They're going to give us five temporary slots, which they're going to turn into full-time slots. So that's going to be very beneficial too. It'll be a 15 man academy. In the coming months, we'll have more promotions, and so of course, that's going to create openings for basically another academy."
Presley is also hoping to boost the department's financial incentive for members who increase their skills.
"We're working on our professional development program, which will be, hopefully, $1,500 incentive, annual incentive, every year for the classes they acquire over the year," Presley said. "So that's going to help us retain people too."