Ask any firefighter or police officer and they will tell you that the job is about a lot more than money. It’s rescuing someone from a fire, stopping a bad guy before he can hurt someone or helping a woman give birth.
But even those who feel they had a calling to these professions have to consider their options when they do not make enough to cover the basics and provide for their own families.
“They make life-altering decisions in citizens’ lives at the worst possible moment in their lives,” said Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson. “Do you want the best and brightest or do you want the cheapest you can get?”
Walton faces a unique set of problems. It is the fifth fastest-growing county in the nation and has one of the hottest economies in the country. It is also 19th in the nation in income disparity.
Adkinson said dump truck drivers and delivery drivers in Walton County can expect to start at $55,000 a year with benefits. Meanwhile, due to changes in the state retirement system, Adkinson says private companies and even fast food companies offer better retirement options than the state. Florida’s pension system used to be one of the best draws for state employees. But the legislature has essentially made it worthless to new hires, he added.
“Starbucks has a 401k and they pay for your college education,” Adkinson said.
Walton County currently offers $41,000 a year for deputies and firefighters. The sheriff has also instituted a $5,000 hiring bonus for deputies.
“We look at like college football,” Adkinson said. “We’re bidding and going after the best and brightest we can find.”
Adkinson and other administrators start working with possible local candidates while they are still in school. Fire officials say they bring recruits into the department for office jobs while they are still in school. Once they pass their classes and get their certification they are promoted to a firefighter with the agency.
“We really like to hire local people. Their family is here,” said Bay County Emergency Services Chief Mark Bowen. “We’re not going to have a situation where mom or dad get sick and they go back to Ohio. People who have roots here generally it works out pretty well for us.”
Bowen added that turnover in the fire community is generally rare. That stability is reinforced because firefighters generally lose their rank and start over when they move to another department. But Bowen says he’s seen a change in the ability to hire new firefighters.
“It used to be extremely easy,” Bowen said. “I think the trend toward it being a little more difficult honestly started well before the storm.”
But Hurricane Michael created a housing crisis that impacts nearly everyone who is trying to hire workers. Rents in Bay County have doubled and in some cases tripled. Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford said his agency lost some deputies who moved away after the storm and others because of the housing issue.
“Our recruiting and hiring is a continual process,” Ford said. “We hire three or four and two will leave.”
But he also sees an ongoing problem with how the younger generation views employment.
“When I started my job I knew what I wanted to do and I knew I was going to do it for my whole life and theoretically at one or two places,” Ford said. “This younger generation, they may try being police for a while, then go back to school get into computers. Even though they have gone to school to be police and we have invested in them. A shinier object passes by and they are gone.”
Of course, even if there is more money in that new job, life may not be better.
Ford related the story of one employee who recently left the sheriff’s office for a job making a lot more money. Ford says the worker called three weeks later hoping to return to the force.
Another issue for agencies is that many of them either can’t or won’t pay veterans more for their experience and loyalty to an agency. Several agencies have no built-in way to give annual cost of living raises to employees. Instead, the officer or firefighter is paid more when they move up in rank or have to wait for years when the agency is able to give raises to veterans.
What that means in practice is that veterans with as much as a decade of service can sometimes make exactly the same as new hires. And in some cases, a rookie employee can make more than their more experienced counterparts.
“You have got to look at what’s fair for the organization as a whole,” Ford said.
Bay County Sheriff’s deputies who have stayed with the agency for 10 years are making about $43,000 a year about $5,000 more than new recruits. Walton deputies and firefighters are making about $48,000 or about $7,000 more than new hires. A Panama City Beach Police officer makes $18.75 to start and $24.25 after 10 years. Panama City Beach firefighters start at $32,079 and make about $41,340 after 10 years. But Beach fire officials and others stressed that the numbers can’t be taken as an apples to apples comparison. Agency officials promote education and training to their employees and many of them make much more in overtime.
Bowen noted that firefighters often have second jobs, a lifestyle that is supported because of their unique schedules. Firefighters work 24 hours at a time with 48 hours off in between.
“It’s easier for a firefighter to have a second career,” Bowen said.
During next year’s legislative session Governor Ron Desantis plans to introduce legislation to significantly raise the pay for teachers and other education employees. This comes as the state faces an immediate crisis in hiring enough teachers to work in the public school system and after years of cuts to the retirement system and a lack of raises each year.
It’s not hard to envision a similar need in the very near future for firefighters and law enforcement officers. Adkinson, Bowen, and Ford all credited their county commissioners with working to find public safety funds.
However, Adkinson said the state and the public will have to come to terms with what is asked of law enforcement officers and firefighters. That reckoning will require taxpayers and leaders to consider what a fair and livable wage is for first responders.
“We’re going to suffer the consequences of not retaining experienced competent firefighters and sheriff’s deputies,” he said.