The Pasco County Commission has approved a new three-year contract with Pasco County Fire Rescue that makes the county’s pay more competitive and emphasizes firefighters’ well-being.
The contract calls for improving pay and adding services intended to support the mental health needs of emergency responders.
The pact, approved by the county board on Dec. 5, also calls for adding another shift that will result in shorter work hours, providing a better work-life balance for personnel.
J.J. Murphy told county board members: “One year ago, I was hired as your assistant county administrator for public safety. Little did I know what stood in front of me.
“With Mike’s (County Administrator Mike Carballa) unwavering support, we tackled significant morale issues, a two-year mass exodus of fire personnel, recruiting challenges, internal fiscal challenges and a leadership change.”
At the meeting, Murphy stood in a unified front with the key parties in the contract: Barbara Hitzemann, the county’s human resources director and chief negotiator; Ryan Guynn, assistant fire chief; and Jon-Michael Morin, president of the IAFF Local 4420, which represents Pasco’s professional firefighters.
Murphy covered some of the contract’s substantive points.
During the first two years, it will bring salaries in line with the market area, he said.
“The third year brings in the transformational move to a D Shift,” Murphy added. “The contract and the D shift will allow us to address many items, including recruiting and retention; employee health and wellness; positive management initiatives; three-year cost certainty for the county and the employees.
“This collaborative effort led to a favorable vote of over 80% of the union members.”
Guynn, the assistant fire chief added: “As you’re well aware, the explosive growth that we’ve had over the last few years, actually within the last decade in Pasco County, has increased our work stress environment with our men and women in Pasco County Fire Rescue.
“Since 2020, if we continue at a pace like we are, as of this morning, we’re looking to close to a 30% increase in call volume, just since the last three years.
“That’s really put a toll on our men and women,” he said.
Keeping firefighters in Pasco
Retaining emergency responders has been an issue, Guynn said.
“We’re working 24 hours nonstop, not to mention that we’re working overtime more and more and more. We’re having difficulties keeping people in the seats. That has really elevated our issues within Fire Rescue,” he said.
Mental health is a major focus of the new deal.
A study done by a doctoral candidate involved fire rescue and corrections personnel.
“Out of all of those employees that he studied, 44.5% have either sought or considered treatment for depression; 40% have either sought or considered treatment for anxiety; 37.7 % have sought or considered treatment for PTSD; more than that, almost a full percent of them have sought or considered treatment for suicide.
“Some of the contributing factors to that, of course, are the long work hours, the sleep deprivation, the mandatory overtime, the high-stress work environment.
“We don’t need to re-address what kinds of calls the men and women are running every day – some of the most horrific things that we could see, especially over a 30-year career,” Guynn said.
Lightening the load
In fiscal year 2026, an additional shift will be added, reducing the hours worked from 2,704 to 2,184, the assistant fire chief said.
That transition will result in reducing the work week from 56 hours a week to 42 hours a week, he said.
“We’re hoping that balance is going to allow us to level out the stress,” he added.
The county also is aiming to reduce its overtime expenses.
“Of course, the other issue is employee retention,” Guynn said.
“We’ve been kind of the training ground for other departments around us.
“We’ve hired a lot of people over these past couple of years, but we’ve almost lost just as many as we hired.
“We’re looking to reset that, and that’s what this contract is going to do,” he said.
The fire union’s president said this contract puts Pasco into a different posture.
He said it will “make Pasco County Fire Rescue an employment destination in years to come.”
Commissioners Gary Bradford and Jack Mariano congratulated the negotiating teams for coming up with a contract that received an 80% vote of approval.
“That’s just unheard of,” Bradford said.
Mariano added: “Thanks for working together. We told you from the get-go that we heard your problems. It took time to get to where we’re at right now. As far as getting the fire stations built, listening to what we could do for scheduling, looking at what we could do to make it a better life for all of your people, helping them get themselves the protection they want, the help they need.”
The county’s extreme growth and the emergence of COVID slowed progress, but Mariano said new leadership made it happen.
“Similar things have been talked about before, how we could make this work better, but you guys brought it to fruition. You listened. You made it happen,” Mariano said.
Murphy responded: “For years, governments have asked public safety employees to do more with less. By your actions, we’ll be able to do more, with more — and that’s the definition of a premier county.”
Published December 20, 2023