GLADEWATER — The Gladewater Fire Department will lose eight of its 12 full-time firefighters by Nov. 1, officials say.
Fire Chief Cory Crowell said Thursday that the eight firefighters handed in their two-week notices and will be leaving to join Smith County Emergency Services District No. 2.
“By Nov. 1, we’ll be down to four firefighters,” he said. “We’re scrambling to keep the doors open.”
According to a Tyler Morning Telegraph article in November, voters approved the Smith County ESD No. 2’s request to raise sales taxes in the county with the aim to raise funds and hire additional firefighters for stations across rural Smith County. The sales tax increased from 6.75% to 8.25%.
Smith County ESD No. 2 posted a full-time firefighter position application on its website July 1, stating the starting salary is $46,345.
According to Crowell, the starting salary at the Gladewater department is about $35,823 with annual 2.5% salary increase steps pending evaluations.
Entry-level firefighters in Kilgore earn $39,303 compared with $42,715 in Henderson and $40,064 in Tyler, the News Journal reported in August.
“They’re paying more money — that’s what it comes down to,” Crowell said. “They need to feed their families.”
Crowell said the Gladewater department is having to compete with other area departments in hiring.
Gladewater Fire Department employs a staff of 13, including the chief, with seven part-time firefighters and five volunteers. Crowell said the department will have to utilize the part-time staff and volunteers more, but that will likely not be sustainable.
“Minimum staff is 12, four people per day,” Crowell said. “We’re not going to have that. We need 12 people to effectively do our job.”
Mayor John “J.D.” Shipp addressed the issue Thursday night during the mayor’s comments portion of the Gladewater council meeting.
“I don’t see volunteer firefighters as a permanent solution for us,” he said.
He mentioned social media posts asking why the city did not meet the firefighters halfway with salaries, meaning offering them half of the additional money they would earn in Smith County.
“Half is (at least) $5,000,” Shipp said. “Multiply that times 12 full-time guys, that’s around $60,000 halfway, and our budget can’t accommodate that.”
He noted that $60,000 would be an annual expense.
“We have struggled for years to balance our budget,” Shipp said. “Last year, the first time in many we had a budget surplus of less than $20. This year, we had a budget surplus of a little over $40,000. We think that’s progress.
“We do want to hire men and women of similar character and professionalism as those who are leaving,” Shipp said. The city has already reached out to neighboring departments for assistance during the “staffing challenge ahead,” he said.
Shipp believes that the best solution would be to form an emergency services district with communities including Gladewater, White Oak, Clarksville City and Warren City.
“For it to be financially viable to the fire service in our area, we need all four communities to participate,” Shipp said. “As of today, there does not exist an agreement to discuss it ... because not everybody’s a willing partner to start that discussion again.”
Speakers during the citizens comment portion of Thursday’s council meeting said the firefighter shortage is not only a budget issue but a safety problem.
Gladewater firefighter Jacob Garland works part-time and spoke about his concerns about going to a more volunteer-based department.
“Going volunteer is the last thing that we need in the city,” he said. “Seconds count and seconds matter.”
Garland said the city must have a paid fire department and agreed that an ESD would be a great option.
“But we had an opportunity to keep the guys that we had here,” Garland said. “We are going to have to retrain guys that are not from here, the territory, the town, the people and things. That makes a big difference in the quality of service that you’re going to get.”
Longview firefighter and Gladewater volunteer Claude Dickens said he is concerned about the staffing shortage as he and his family live in the city.
“My family depends on it, your family depends on it,” Dickens said. He wanted more details as to what the solution is in addition to trying to hire more firefighters.
“People don’t want to come here because of the pay, you know. People have family, people have kids,” he said. “You have a plan to compensate the firefighters like they should be? I know you’re not as big as Longview where I’m at. I know you’re not as big as Smith County.”
The Gladewater Fire Department posted job listings on its Facebook page Wednesday afternoon. The listings do not include a starting salary but states that the department is seeking full- and part-time employees.
Applications will be accepted until 5 p.m. Nov. 6.