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Still responding to the call

A cadre of veteran Seminole firefighters continues to handle emergencies, but their years of experience come at a cost.

By MAUREEN BYRNE AHERN
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 3, 2002


SEMINOLE -- The year was 1974.

Richard Nixon, the 37th president of the United States, resigned from office. Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run, breaking Babe Ruth's 47-year-old record. And the fad of running naked in public -- called streaking -- was born.

It was also the year Ron Meyer was hired by Seminole Fire Rescue. Nearly 30 years later, the 49-year-old still works for the department, putting out fires and rescuing people from traffic accidents.

Meyer has been with the agency longer than any of its 89 other employees. But he's not the only one with longevity.

Assistant Fire Chief Paul Hill started the job in 1976. So did District Chief James Fannin and firefighters Robert Loeffler and Darral Maffet. Eight other employees also began working for the department in the '70s.

"People in this line of work take this as a career and not just a job," Meyer said. "You will find this in a lot of (fire) departments."

But this commitment can be a double-edged sword. The department is rich with experience, but it comes at a price.

"Seventy-three percent of all employees are at the top of the pay scale," said Fire Chief Dan Graves, who started as a firefighter at the department in 1977 and rose through the ranks to become fire chief in 2000. "Obviously, that does cause some financial issues."

The department's pay for new firefighters is $30,159. It caps off at $41,219. Paramedics' salaries range from $34,724 to $47,461. The city also pays cost-of-living increases.

Most of the employees are at the head of the department's pay scale because of a system that allowed them to reach the top in eight years. Three years ago, that system changed to 14 years.

Top salaries and pension plans for so many employees are a huge expense to the city, said Harry Kyne, Seminole's finance director. But, he said, there are advantages and disadvantages to such a seasoned force.

"You pay for that additional training and skill," Kyne said. "On the other hand, would you want the person with 10 years of experience or the person who just came out of school? I think people appreciate the higher level of training, but it costs more."

Last year Kyne and Graves did a study to see if it would be better for the city to allow some of its longtime fire employees to retire early. Kynes, the finance director, said calculations proved such a plan would be too expensive for the city because of increased costs in pension benefits.

"In actuality, it didn't work out to save money," said Graves, the fire chief. "The numbers just didn't work."

An agency grows

Seminole Fire Rescue got its start in 1958. Back then it was an all-volunteer organization. The commitment passed from one generation to another.

In the early '70s, the agency began to pay some people. A decade later, all of its firefighters were paid. But before many of these employees were hired, they worked for free.

"I started as a volunteer to see if I would like it as a career, and the rest is history," said Fannin, one of the department's three district chiefs.

At 50, Fannin is the oldest employee who does shift work. In March, he'll celebrate his 26th anniversary at the department. To be eligible for retirement benefits, Fannin must work another two years.

Department employees must meet one of two conditions before being eligible for retirement: They must have 10 years of service and be 55 years old or have 25 years of service and be 52 years old.

Because a lot of the firefighters started working for the agency at such a young age, many must stay longer than 25 years. The city has no mandatory retirement age.

"I think most of us agree that after putting in 25 years, it's time to go," said Maffet, 48, who will reach his 26th anniversary with the department in December. "It's a young guys' game."

Like Fannin, Graves and Meyer, Maffet volunteered for Seminole Fire Rescue for a couple of years before he was hired in 1976.

He and other longtime employees have watched the department grow from a humble volunteer force to a professional organization that wins national awards in fire rescue contests. In 1995, the city of Seminole acquired the then-independent agency, tripling its budget from about $3.5-million to $11-million.

In the old days, Seminole firefighters mostly fought brush fires. Over the years, their role shifted to include everything from fighting fires to responding to traffic accidents to dealing with hazardous materials.

"You name it, we do it all pretty much now," said Fannin, the district chief.

Reaching the top

Meyer, the employee with the longest tenure at Seminole Fire Rescue, has been at the top of the agency's pay scale for 14 years. He said he will be eligible to retire in January 2005.

Salaries make up about 84 percent of the department's $7-million budget, Graves said. "But 80 percent is typical of personnel costs anywhere you go," he said.

The Seminole firefighters work 24-hour shifts followed by two days off. They average 56 hours a week, Graves said. Many work part-time jobs on their days off.

Last year, the department responded to 9,857 calls. Medical emergencies made up 7,200 of those calls. Only 4 percent of the remaining calls were related to fires.

In about five years, most of the department's original employees will retire. "It will be a changing time for the organization," said Hill, 50, the agency's assistant chief.

"You like to think we're the glue that holds it together," Maffet said.

But younger firefighters such as Michael Lathrop are ready to fill their roles. "It's kind of like a rotation," said Lathrop, who is 31. "As these guys retire, you almost fall into their spots when they leave."

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