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Polk County firefighters begin contract negotiations amid continued staffing shortage

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Posted at 4:50 PM, Jul 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-06 18:24:10-04

POLK COUNTY, Fla. — Polk County Fire Rescue will begin contract negotiations this week, as the department continues to struggle with staffing shortage.

Polk County Fire Rescue is one of the busiest fire departments in the state. “It’s not uncommon for our stations to run 20 plus calls in a shift,” said Vernon Austin, spokesperson for Polk County Professional Firefighters, Local 3531.

Most of those calls are physically, mentally and emotionally draining. “We see and do things that the average individual will never have to participate in, and we do it as a service to our community,” Austin said.

Instead of going home after a long 24-hour shift, firefighters are being forced to work hundreds of hours of mandatory overtime to make up for staffing shortages.

“You get the last-minute notice and you got to stay another 24, especially when you had a rough shift, with multiple trauma alerts, multiple cardiac arrests. Another 24 hours of that is not only physically exhausting, it’s mentally exhausting,” Austin said.

To fill vacancies Polk County began offering an $8,000 sign-on bonus. Firefighters said it has not worked. Currently, within Polk County's Fire Rescue division there are 50 vacancies.

“Firefighter ten years plus, leaving to go to other departments. To walk out of this department and start all over again somewhere else, once you’ve reached that goal that you set for yourself. It’s tough to do,” Austin said.

Polk County Fire Chief Robert Weech himself, leaving for another department in South Florida.

“They feel abandoned, they feel as though there is no hope to resolve this issue. If we can't keep a fire chief, how are we going to keep line employees from staffing these trucks,” Austin said.

He’s hopeful a union proposal that will attract and retain firefighters will be approved during upcoming negotiations. The first meeting is happening on Thursday, July 7 at 2 p.m. at the Stuart Center in Bartow.