Hillsborough County should replace its volunteer firefighters with full-time professionals. That's the only responsible conclusion to draw from a recent audit that found numerous problems and only modest cost savings from using the volunteers. Replacing the ranks with professionals puts public safety first. It's not cheap, but it makes financial sense.
Hillsborough County runs the largest fire rescue operation in the state, and outside auditors recently praised it for "strong leadership," a "high sense of responsibility" and "unity of command." These are high marks for an urban county that hired its first full-time firefighters not 40 years ago. They speak to the department's ability to handle the increasingly complex tasks that firefighters must handle, from containing hazardous spills to answering medical and rescue calls.
Auditors, though, singled out the county's use of volunteers, and recommended that officials "further evaluate" whether it is cost-effective or valuable. As the study pointed out, volunteers "are not free" — the county spends more than $1.5 million per year in operational expenses for the volunteer units, largely to pay salary and overtime for career firefighters who must staff the stations when volunteer crews run short. Volunteers don't have the same skills and experience, and communication between the two groups is a problem. That is a serious issue in an operation where lives depend on teamwork and a strong chain of command.
Volunteers are widely used across the country, and they fill critical holes in the emergency response system for hundreds of small communities. But Hillsborough needs professionals to provide the level of service that growing urban counties expect. Its 150-volunteer crew is outsized for a career force of 800 firefighters. Hillsborough, for example, uses five times more volunteers than Orange County, which is similar in size. And the turnover rate for volunteers is 50 percent.
The audit estimates that the cost of turning over operations to an all-career force would be an additional $3.5 million per year. The county could phase in that expense over time, and soften the impact by creating a "reserve" force that still gives volunteers a career track into a full-time job. Even in these tough times, the amounts are reasonable. County administrator Mike Merrill and Fire Rescue Chief Ron Rogers will discuss the audit's findings today. This is not the first or last conversation on the use of volunteers, and the final decision rests with county commissioners. They should all recognize that switching to a full-time professional force is the best for public safety and quality of life.