By Paul Gable
Sometimes mistakes lead to larger truths. That’s what happened yesterday when I made a mistake in a story about Horry County Council passing a pay increase for all first responders.
County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus called to correct me and rightly so.
As the day wore on and the story and correction became known, I started receiving calls from first responders.
The overriding theme in those phone calls was, “It’s not about the money.”
Sure a pay raise is nice, but it’s probably not going to stop the overall trend of attrition from the ranks of first responders in Horry County.
Because of continuing shortages of officers in police and fire departments, the officers that are employed are being worked to exhaustion.
The Lazarus plan through this year’s budget planning was to give a pay raise to all first responders to stop attrition. Then, when all personnel slots are filled council can talk about increasing numbers in the police and fire departments.
The problems with losing officers are multi-fold. New officers are hired, sent to academies for training, outfitted with uniforms and gear to perform the job, all of which costs money. Training continues after they go to work. The more experience they gain through working on the job, the more valuable they become to the overall efficiency of the force.
If, after three, four or five years officers continue to throw up their hands and say ‘I’m leaving, I’ve had enough of these working conditions,’ the county loses more than just a body. It also loses the experience that officer gained on the job.
Hiring a new officer may fill a position, but the experience is lost and the overall efficiency of the force is less than it would be if retention of experienced officers was high.
Lazarus said through the Spring Budget Retreat, “It’s all about the money.” The theory being an increase in pay would result in an increase in retention of officers.
But, the men and women in the trenches, so to speak, those who are working the overtime and responding to service call after service call, sometimes on shifts of 48 straight hours, say, “It’s not about the money. We need help.”
As one caller said, “They can pay rookie officers $100K per year but, if they continue to run the officers into the ground to the point of exhaustion, they are going to continue to have retention problems.”
Understaffed, overworked conditions hurt the overall efficiency of the officers on the line. They do not get the time needed for rest, continuing training or to check the equipment they need to perform the job effectively. This is in all public safety departments. And they often are less rested than they should be for optimum effectiveness.
Those who have served in the military understand this. Rest, training and maintaining equipment are important to a fighting force when opposing the enemy. Just continuing to throw bodies at an enemy force is counterproductive.
And you always plan for a reserve force to be used if or when necessary. Horry County has no reserve force, all of its personnel are on the front lines every day. But, it does have reserve money.
A smart officer understands you have to depend on your experienced personnel to get you through and listen to the feedback they are providing. You can’t just command and expect results.
Unfortunately, the problem of retention of trained officers and overall shortage of public safety personnel has been with the county for a number of years and council has found excuses not to address the problem directly.
I’ve heard council member Harold Worley say several times through the years, ‘we need to put 100 more officers on the streets. Sure we need to pay them competitively, but we need more officers to serve our increasing population.’
The wisdom in Worley’s words has not yet found a way into a majority of council’s understanding. Hopefully, it soon will.