PUTNAM COUNTY, Fla. — An alarming situation.
“Stations just don’t have the manpower,” a former Putnam County Fire Rescue employee told First Coast News.
Some on the job now tell the On Your Side team the openings force them to routinely work 48-hours straight, and that’s leading to more burnout.
“We’re working our employees to death right now,” Putnam County Commissioner Jeff Rawls said as he and others in county leadership search for answers to the problem.
While the population grows in Putnam County, the number of firefighter, paramedics serving them is declining. One recent departure is a veteran of the rescue squad who doesn’t want to ruffle feathers but wants to help shed light on a major problem.
He left after nearly two decades on the force saying it had become financially and physically too difficult to keep working. So under the condition of anonymity, we got an inside look into a department in distress.
“You can’t overwork people and fail to pay them and fail to accommodate them. That’s not going to work for you,” the former fire rescue employee said.
It took over a decade for all Putnam County government employees including firefighter-paramedics to get a raise. In December, after months waiting on raises to hit their accounts, firefighter paramedics cashed their checks just before the new year. Wages, overtime and resignations led to a Town Hall meeting in early January where the On Your Side team was the only television crew in attendance.
It’s where we met Rhonda Drackett. Her life changed forever on Oct. 21, 2019, when her husband had a heart attack.
“When I dialed 911 they responded and unfortunately became lost. And when my husband received care, he did not survive,” she said.
Drackett, who is running for county commission, says she wants to make it a priority to get first responders the tools and support they need.
There are eight active ambulances, one full-time firetruck and another part-time truck. These need to be staffed around the clock, and from what we’ve uncovered, it’s getting harder and more expensive to do so.
Page after page of new hires between January 2016 and January 2020. Some 108 joining the department but cross-reference those names with the resignations list: 67 came and went. A total of 111 left the county in that span.
Many going to work in neighboring counties where the pay and retirement is comparable, but promotion opportunities and according to current firefighter-paramedics we heard from, far less mandatory overtime.
County Commissioners, who hold the purse strings in Putnam County have not put any measures on the ballot that would increase taxes: one way to add more resources to the department.
In a workshop, county leaders approved retaining a consulting firm to assist with solutions.
Reporter: “Does this concern you?”
“Absolutely,” Rawls said, “The commissioners are responsible for public safety in the community and personally I take that seriously.”
Rawls pitched the idea of home-buying credits or insurance reductions to attract more employees to the service. Those still being discussed.
“In my estimations that puts a life safety hazard because it put the employee out there for a long, long time without meaningful downtime,” Rawls said.
Union leadership suggest burnout and overtime may be avoided if the County were to develop a strategic plan.
“A five, ten, 15 year plan to show these guys that there is a vision here in Putnam County and they should stay in Putnam County. If they don’t see that vision and that opportunity, then they’ll leave,” Local 3529 union president Clu Wright said.
For those who have already left – the job, once a lifestyle, isn’t easy to give up.
“I wish I could do more for them. I wish the citizens saw what they had, what they lose,” the former fire rescue employee said.