As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner’s decision this week to give the county’s career firefighters and EMTs a nearly 8 percent pay raise starting Oct. 26 certainly counts as a couple of ounces of prevention.
As a county, we’re spending time and money recruiting and training firefighters and EMTs only to see them leave for neighboring counties where salaries are significantly higher.
Earlier this week, Frederick County’s acting fire chief, Tom Coe, told The Frederick News-Post that from 2018 through Monday his department has lost 27 employees, and a dozen of them moved to a new fire or EMS department.
“There’s a lot of jurisdictions that surround Frederick County that are offering lateral transfer packages, so previously trained firefighters that go to their jurisdiction with the training they received in Frederick County,” Coe told our reporter.
A study completed last November of six nearby counties (Howard, Montgomery, Prince George’s, Baltimore and Loudoun County, Virginia) showed that while Frederick County was at the bottom of the list for starting pay for a new firefighter, the salaries for more experienced firefighters and EMTs was closer to the surrounding counties.
All of the counties in the study have substantially higher populations than Frederick County. The study did not include Washington or Carroll counties because neither has a professional countywide fire department. To be fair, there was no easy apples-to-apples comparison.
Before the announced raise, a fully trained firefighter started out at $41,603 annually. With the increase, that number rises to $44,928. And we’ll concede that Frederick will likely never fully compete with neighboring Howard and Montgomery counties, both of which frequently rank in the top 10 wealthiest counties in the nation. Howard starts firefighters at $59,779, and Montgomery has a starting salary of $46,166.
However, the new starting salary stands up much better to Loudoun County ($43,636); Prince George’s County ($42,924) and Baltimore County ($43,272).
The raise might also carry more weight when you consider that the cost of living in Frederick County is lower than in some of the other counties in the study.
The raise comes at a tricky time for Gardner, as the county is in ongoing contract talks with the firefighters union. She said the raise had nothing to do with the negotiations and everything to do with recruitment and retention of the county’s firefighters and EMTs. But we have to think this step will certainly help the negotiations, particularly since voters last fall approved Question D, which requires binding arbitration if the firefighters and the county cannot agree on a contract.
The increase in firefighter and EMT pay comes at a time when many other county and city employees have received raises.
In June, it was announced that Frederick police officers will receive a 3.26 percent pay increase, a work schedule adjustment for patrol officers and an increase in the amount of extra pay for multilingual officers.
In May, the Frederick Board of Education and the teachers union reached a tentative agreement for the 2019-20 school year that gives an average pay increase of 5 percent for all teachers.
“Anytime you have a great group of people, other people want to take them,” County Council President M.C. Keegan-Ayer (D) said at a recent meeting.
Hopefully, these raises will make it a bit more difficult for that to happen.