Thursday, June 03, 2004 - 12:00 AM |

Cities mull pay raises for firefighters

Caleb Warnock THE DAILY HERALD


Two south Utah County cities are considering plans to increase the wages paid to firefighters.

City council members in Elk Ridge and Woodland Hills are considering budget increases for their fire departments because both cities are growing. Both rely on volunteer firefighters.

Elk Ridge Mayor Vernon Fritz said the city pays its firefighters only $4.50 an hour for both training and emergency response.

"The simple fact of the matter is they were getting less than $5 an hour and that is not even minimum wage," he said. "My opinion is that with the amount of time they put in on the job, they just deserve better than that, even though they are volunteers."

Fritz said he will suggest the firefighters be paid $6 an hour beginning in July, though he noted their service is worth much more than the city can pay.

"We had a 10-acre wildfire here last year and within 10 minutes we had our local people on the fire," he said. "The fire came within 50 feet of two luxury homes and could have easily consumed them. I just can't say too much good about our firefighters. They are excellent."

Several arson fires were also set in dry weeds in the city last year, and firefighters were able to respond to those blazes in time to put them out before any homes were threatened, he said.

"We had three cases where someone tossed an incendiary device into the grasses," Fritz said. "It was lunacy. If it had not been for the firefighters' quick response it probably would have cost us more land."

Woodland Hills Mayor Toby Harding said the city has historically never paid its firefighters and is considering a proposal to change that. The City Council has not decided how much money it may pay the firefighters.

"We are getting to the point where we need to be more professional," Harding said. "It's been done strictly on a volunteer basis, and that was the way we have dealt with it historically, but the demands were less a few years ago."

When the city was incorporated in 1979, it boasted only 60 homes, he said. Today that number has increased fivefold, to more than 300 homes.

As the firefighters have had to respond to more emergency calls, the burden on the fire department has increased, Harding said.

"We won't make any decision until sometime later this month," he said of the proposal to pay the firefighters. "We haven't gone any further than that."

Woodland Hills Fire Chief Jarold Sorensen said the city's 14 volunteer firefighters must train two nights a week plus all day every other Saturday for up to four months before receiving certification from the state. After passing a hands-on skills test and a written test, the firefighters must then train an additional 36 hours a year to maintain their certification. Additional certifications, such as dealing with hazardous materials or wildfires, require even more hours of training.

"It is a really big commitment, and when somebody is not getting paid for it for the last six years, you are giving a lot of hours of service time to your community," he said. "Hopefully they appreciate it. If you think what it would cost the city to pay full-time firefighters, the community probably would not be able to afford it."

Not many people are willing to commit to the time required to become a volunteer firefighter, he said, but without volunteers, Woodland Hills, which is nestled against the mountainside, would be vulnerable not only to home fires but wildfires as well.

"If we have to count on Salem, they are 10 to 15 minutes away," he said. "Spanish Fork and Payson, all those are 20 minutes away if we call in for mutual aid, so we have a quick response group up here. If we have a lightning flash, we could have it out before it spreads."