Fire hirings aimed at future, diversity

Staff Writer

In a move designed to try to stay ahead of the Mississippi State Rating Bureau and increase diversity, West Point Selectmen have agreed to hire two new firefighters: Cody Parker, who already is certified to replace one who is leaving and Demond Smith, who will have to be trained.

Fire Chief Ken Wilbourne recommended the double hire Tuesday night after lengthy discussion during a board study session Monday night.

The city received applications from four candidates, two of whom already were certified and working in other communities. The other two weren't certified but one of those didn't have a driver's license and had some other issues.

The two certified firefighters were white and the other two were black. Of the two certified officers, the one the city hired is from West Point and wants to return home to be near his parents. The other is from West Point as well but didn't want to move from Amory.

"I am about diversity, I want to get more diversity in the fire department," Ward 5 Selectman Jasper Pittman said during Monday night's study session.

When Wilbourne pointed out the difference between hiring a certified firefighter and one that has to go through the state fire academy is $10,525.16, Pittman responded, "We can look in our budget and find that, we can do that."

Wilbourne noted the department is at minimum staffing levels now and if the city hired an untrained person, it would be at least two or three months before they could be used on a fire and then they'd have to go the academy, probably in late summer.

And overall, the department is understaffed by a man per shift to meet the fire rating bureau recommended standards.

"If you go by certified credentials, then you could never hire anyone who hasn't been certified," Ward 3 Selectman Ken Poole noted.

"If we wait every time for someone to be trained, we put a minority at a disadvantage because they usually can't afford to pay for their own training," Pittman added.

As the discussion continued, Ward 4 Selectman Keith McBrayer noted the new hires would only be paid for four months out of the current budget year, which ends in June and Wilbourne has a position budgeted. The city could hire the certified applicant to fill the immediate staffing need and hire the non-certified person to start the training process.

"That way we wouldn't have to bite off the whole thing at once," McBrayer said of hiring two people now.

Depending on how the city's projected revenues shape up, the new budget that starts in July possibly could set aside more money for training and enough to hire another two or three non-certified personnel in the following 12 months.

"The ideal thing would be to hire two or three non-certified and have the money to get them trained and into the system. That way we always would be at least even, if not ahead," Wilbourne said.

The department has just $5,500 for training in its $1.2 million budget in the current spending year.

"That's not enough," Pittman said, shaking his head.

The staffing situation is even more important because the state Rating Bureau is expected to visit this spring to survey the department and the community and recommend new fire ratings. The city currently is a Class 6 and has been trying to get to a Class 5, which would reduce insurance premiums as much as 10 percent for city property owners.

But to reach that goal, the department likely will need the four additional firefighters. Furthermore, changes in the city's business and residential patterns could prompt the agency to recommend a new fire station, especially with things like 52 new apartments being built on Highway 50 just west of downtown. In addition to construction and equipment costs, that would require nine more firefighters.

"We'll know sooner than later," Wilbourne said of the Rating Bureau's survey. "But that's the reason we need to start planning a little for the future."