13 firefighters promoted in department restructuring

Thirteen Ashland Fire & Rescue firefighters were promoted this month as part of a department restructuring expected to cost as much as $28,000 in the first year, Fire Chief John Karns said Thursday.

The promotions are designed to increase oversight at both city fire stations.

"We needed to have somebody in charge of each station when they would go out on calls," Karns said. "There needed to be somebody in charge and there wasn't. Now we have a more conventional organizational structure."

The restructuring is expected to cost as much as $30,000 the second year, because some of the commanders are likely to receive additional raises, he said. The third year, it should cost slightly less, but specific numbers for that year aren't yet available, Karns said.

The City Council approved the promotions this year as part of its budget process, also voting to raise property taxes to bring in an additional $30,000 annually to pay for new fire hoses and turnouts.

Karns created a new position in the department, battalion chief, and promoted three previous captains to the position on Nov. 1.

A week later, he promoted four engineers and two firefighters to serve as captains. Then Karns made four firefighters engineers, allowing them to drive fire engines.

The ranks at the department, in ascending order, are now firefighter, engineer, captain, battalion chief and fire chief. One battalion chief will oversee operations at both fire stations during each shift, while a captain at each station will monitor day-to-day duties, such as responding to calls, training and equipment maintenance.

A top-level Ashland firefighter earns about $61,100 annually, Karns said. Engineers earn as much as 9 percent more than top-level firefighters, or $66,600 per year, captains as much as 18 percent more, or $72,100, and battalion chiefs as much as 27 percent more, or $77,600.

While the promotions will result in higher salary costs for the city, they will save the city some overtime costs, because fewer captains will need to be called in to work during their off-hours, Karns said.

He hopes the promotions will encourage more firefighters to stay in Ashland, instead of seeking career advancement at other nearby fire departments.

"We were losing people to other departments for lack of a career ladder," he said. "Before, the chance of being promoted was very slim."

The promotion costs to the city will pay for themselves if they increase retention of firefighters, Karns said.

"When you look at what it costs a department every time it loses an employee to another department, (keeping) one person more than pays for what this costs," he said.

In the past 10 years, about 12 firefighters have left the department, many in order to seek career advancement elsewhere, he said.

Karns didn't hire any extra firefighters to complete the restructuring.

He promoted the captains to battalion chiefs without requiring them to complete additional training or tests initially because they were already essentially completing the duties of that position, he said.

Karns required firefighters and engineers who applied to become captains to undergo a series of tests, interviews and training exercises, before he selected the top six candidates for the position.

The department restructuring should improve the department's response to routine calls as well as big fires, such as last summer's Oak Knoll fire, Karns said.

"Anytime you have somebody that's totally responsible for any single resource, that is helpful," he said. "Ultimately we're going to realize a higher level of training, supervision and interpersonal management than we currently have."

Karns has worked toward the department restructuring since he assumed his position in June 2009, after serving as deputy fire chief of the Beverly Hills Fire Department in California.

"This was one of the first things I identified and wanted to get resolved," he said. "It took a little while to execute and I recognize that it's not without its costs, but it's certainly well worth it for us."

Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-482-3456, ext. 226, or hguzik@dailytidings.com.

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