Long hours, calls in the middle of the night, stress and strain on family relationships, and working in understaffed departments are not exactly guaranteed to net tons of applicants for openings in police and fire departments across the county. But such are the realities. Add in limited funds for pay, rotating hours and risks of the job, and qualified applicants are not rushing to fill positions.
“Hiring has become one of the most challenging issues law enforcement currently faces,” said Martin Police Chief Don Teal, echoing a constant refrain of department heads across the county. “We don’t seem to have the pool of applicants that we once had.”
Fire Chief Bob Dudley in Greenfield said the same is true for fire departments, naming recruitment and retainment as major obstacles. While the 102 hours of basic training required before a paid on-call (volunteer) firefighter can fight a fire is good for safety reasons, he said, the time demands of pre- and ongoing training make it difficult for anyone working a fulltime job and supporting a family.
”With kids, working two jobs, they don’t have any additional time to volunteer. They may want to be on the department, but they can’t come to training,” agreed Chief Gary Eddings of Sharon’s Fire Department.
Gleason Police Chief Jeff Hazlewood who has had a 33-year career thus far said, “We have very few folks that are putting in applications. It does appear there’s been a huge change in interest for young people to enter in to police work. The increasing negativity that we see nationwide towards police could play a role.”
May is the month where the U.S. is encouraged to celebrate the protection and safety offered by police and firefighters. For Weakley County that includes volunteer firefighters in the unincorporated areas, “paid on-call” firefighters in the incorporated cities and career firefighters in Martin. Police departments range in size from 2 fulltime and 1 part-time in Sharon to Martin’s 30 officers.
When Dudley first started, under the tutelage of his father, then Chief Bill Dudley, those that filled the 12 positions worked in Greenfield. Now, 42 and a half years later, there are 18 spots and, Dudley says, the individuals with the motivation to complete and keep up with training as well as stay on for long tenures like he and his dad are “a dying breed.”
Greenfield Police Department has six fulltime positions and two part-time, but currently two are technically still open. One potential officer is awaiting clearance. Chief Joey Radford continues the search for a certified candidate to fill the other fulltime role.
Martin Police and Fire are the largest departments in the county. MPD includes 30 officers. Martin Fire is the only county department that is made up of career firefighters. Nine firefighters work each of three shifts. With the chief and the training officer, they have 29 in the department.
Dresden Police have a full staff of 14 officers – five of whom are part-time. Dresden Fire also has all 28 positions filled. They, like Greenfield and Sharon, are paid on-call.
Sharon has two fulltime police officers and one part-time. Twenty volunteer firefighters are available there.
Gleason’s department rosters include 4 fulltime and 5 part-time officers and 28 volunteers in the fire department.
While police chiefs serve fulltime in the county, Sharon, Dresden, Greenfield and Gleason have part-time fire chiefs.
Each of the chiefs that supervise fulltime staff members say that the packages offered include good benefits. However, the paid on-call rates for volunteer firefighters range from $20 per call to $27. No matter how long the call might take, the rate is set.
Even in Martin where career firefighters start at $25,400 and top out at $32,000, Chief Jamie Summers has seen a decline in applications.
Police Chief Hazlewood says Gleason pay range of $12/hr., is the lowest starting pay of any agency but adds “We’re working on getting it to $14.”
Chief Steve Howe in Dresden acknowledges that the different cities with different infrastructures can “only do what they can do.”
“You always want the pay to be competitive with other law enforcement agencies, businesses, etc.,” he said of one of the deterrents to recruiting. “And society has made it difficult. The view taken on a life in law enforcement … there are not a lot who want it.”
Once a firefighter or police officer is hired, training continues. Dresden Fire Chief Paul Hutcherson says his department might train up to 30 hours a month. Fortunately, he adds, Martin often makes the training there available to all the departments in the county.
As for police officers, Chief Howe notes, “We are constantly having to retrain officers because what we see now, we didn’t know previously. When it comes to crime on the street, there’s always some new sin. We get out of one problem and there’s a new one.”
The financial strains are not only felt with personnel. With fire trucks ranging in price from $300,000 to $500,000 and up to a million dollars for a ladder rig, chiefs depend on grants to keep departments well-equipped. For instance, at the moment, Chief Dudley is working on finding $40,000 to update personal protection equipment – boots, coats, helmets, gloves – that is over ten years old.
“Funding has been cut and therefore is more competitive,” Chief Summers said of the grant process. “There’s a higher potential you’re going to get turned down than get a grant.”
Chief Dudley says that is why community support of fundraisers is so important.
Community support can come in other forms as well, notes Chief Howe.
“The public in Dresden is awesome,” he said of the gift bags on holidays from churches and schools as well as the thank you’s and handshakes on the streets. Chief Hutcherson agrees, “We feel greatly appreciated by the community.”
Chief Eddings said the same is true in Sharon. “We’ve got a real good community and they reward us,” he noted naming churches that support throughout the year. “Lots of people say thank you. Sometimes it takes a big disaster or incident to make people think of what we do.”
The appreciation helps when it comes to the stress that community helpers endure. Chief Eddings who is also an EMT and works part-time with the Sheriff’s Department said, “Two years ago I personally worked 12 different fatalities and at times like that it’s challenging to continue. Extricating a body from a car, burned bodies from a house. wears on you for sure.”
Chief Radford points to the sacrifice of missing family holidays and birthdays, the stress of always being on-call.
So why continue?
“The desire to serve and the people I’ve helped,” said Eddings.
“I know it might sound trite,” said Radford. “But it’s a calling. There’s something that propels you to do this, to serve, to help.”