The Scottsdale Fire Department is facing a period of heavy retirements in the next five years, but Northwest Valley fire services are on a firm footing with staff.
Scottsdale is a fairly new city department, having been creating July 1, 2005 after purchasing that portion of Rural Metro, including infrastructure and staff. Tom Shannon has been the Scottsdale fire chief since 2011. He has known from that time the department would face high retirement numbers beginning next year. Scottsdale will see 49 of 69 captains and 41 or 69 engineers retire by 2025.
Northwest Valley fire services are on a more stable footing, due partly to having longer operating histories. All agencies have an additional advantage — the Deferred Retirement Option Plan. The optional, voluntary program allows members to work and receive pay and benefits as an active employee while accumulating service pension payments in a DROP account. Members are considered “retired” for purposes of pension calculations only.
“With the drop program, departments are able to forecast the amount of retirements that they will see within a given five-year period,” Ashley Losch, Glendale Fire Department spokeswoman, stated in an email. “The drop program was specifically designed for this purpose, so that police and fire departments did not see a mass exit, leaving them without staff to fill the spots.”
With the ability to forecast retirements, departments can hire slowly and fill as they go, she added. This puts less financial strain on cities to do large hiring processes that are followed by long academy processes.
The DROP program works for all fire departments, whether they are part of a municipality or in a fire district.
In Sun City, the Sun City Fire and Medical Department will not have any staff retirements until 2021 when there will be two, according to Ron Deadman, Sun City fire chief.
“We will have 10 retirements over the next five years,” he stated in an email.
The average tenure for staff in SCFMD is 14 years, he added. The department’s staff turnover rate is 1-2 per year.
The Glendale Fire Department is also forecasting a low number of retirements in the next four years, according to Ashley Losch, department spokeswoman. While she did not readily have average tenure or turnover rate figures for department personnel, Ms. Losch stated in an email retirement requiements would make the number quite high.
“You are currently required to work 25 years to be fully vested in retirement. Previously it was 20 years,” she stated. “The majority of our work force typically will work 25-plus years.”
She did state the turnover rate in the Glendale department was low.
In Peoria Fire-Medical Department there are five scheduled retirements in 2020, all sworn personnel, according to Mike Selmer, department spokesman. Peoria has 197 worn positions — firefighters through fire chief — and 24 civilian positions, incliding administration, staff, fire inspectors and others. Mr. Selmer stated a good faith estimate of average tenure would be 15-20 years.
He added the turnover rate in the Peoria department is 2-3 percent.
“We are still a growing community, and fire department, due to the starting of our ambulance service and the influx of new residnts,’ he stated.
Surprise Fire-Medical Department has the largest number of personnel eligible for retirement at 15, according to Julie Moore, department spokeswoman. There will be seven more eligible in 2020, she added.
“However, members have the discretion to work past the retirement threshold,” she stated in an email.
Because its is a fairly young service in the Valley, there have been just five retirements in the past five years, according to Ms. Moore. The department has a low turnover rate, except in the emergency medical services division, which started about five years ago, according to Ms. Moore.
“SFMD’s EMS Division tends to experience high turnover rates due to EMTs moving into firefighter positions,” Ms. Moore stated.
Representatives of the Arizona Fire & Medical Authority of Sun City West did not respond by press time to the Independent’s inquiries.
Finding people to replace those who do leave fire departments, for retirement or other reasons, is not difficult.
“Firefighting is an incredible career; one that comes with a lot of risk but also lots of rewards,” Ms. Losch stated. “Serving the public is a calling and one that many, many people have. This is a sought after career and one that people work very hard to get into.”
When Peoria fire leaders conduct recruiting tests more than 600 people apply, and more than 400 ultimately take the written exam, according to Mr. Selmer.
“These high numbers allow us to choose from many highly qualified candidates for every available position,” he stated.
Peoria Fire-Medical Department personnel have many career options once they pass their probationary year, Mr. Selmer explained. When spots become available they can become technical rescue technicians, hazardous materials technicians, rescue swimmers or paramedics in addition to their firefighting duties.
In November Surprise fire leadership conducted a firefighter recruitment process and scheduled 138 firefighter interviews one week to eventually create an eligibility list, according to Ms. Moore.
Some service industries, like nurses and police, have experienced shortages of people wanting to go into those fields, but that does not seem to be the case with fire departments.
“Most departments are forced to put a cap on the amount of applicants because there is such a large amount of interest,” Ms. Losch stated.
However, fire districts are at a bit of a disadvantage, according to Mr. Deadman.
“Fire Districts can not compete with the pay provided by cities,” he stated.
That could be changing, but it is a slow trend and one that most likely will not affect fire departments any time soon, according to Ms. Moore.
“SFMD’s most recent firefighter recruitment process showed a decrease in applicants from previous processes, but the applicant pool remains robust,” she stated.