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Lee, Dougherty counties share emergency personnel

Photo by Avan Clark

Photo by Avan Clark

Lee County firefighters Ricky Thompson and Brett Hunter arrive for work at Fire/EMS Station 1 just outside the Leesburg city limits at 7 a.m. on any given work day.

Twenty-four hours later, when their shift ends, they have an hour to drive to Albany and do the same thing with the Albany Fire Department for the next 24 hours.

Twenty-three hours after their Albany shift ends, Thompson and Hunter are due back in Leesburg for another shift.

The two firefighters are not the only emergency personnel pulling double duty across the Lee/Dougherty county lines. Fully half of the 36-person LFD crew works either full- or part-time back-to-back shifts in Lee County and Albany. Across town, meanwhile, 21 of the 36 Emergency Medical Technicians/paramedics who are part of Lee Emergency Medical Services staff also work back-to-back shifts for the two counties.

It's a system that, while wearing on its practitioners, has provided a number of pluses for emergency services in both Lee and Dougherty counties.

"As far as I'm concerned, there have been no problems with this system," Dougherty EMS Director Bobby Tripp said. "In all honesty, there is such a shortage of certified EMS personnel in the region, if we didn't do things this way, we couldn't keep our trucks running."

Tripp's counterpart in Lee County, EMS Director Bobby Watkins -- who is one of the EMTs pulling part-time duty in Dougherty County -- calls the program a "win-win" for the two counties.

"There just aren't any negatives," Watkins, who worked with Dougherty EMS for 15 years before taking over as Lee director in 1995, said. "In this profession, there's no substitute for experience, and these guys have gained vast experience and knowledge from working in both counties.

"Before I hire anyone from another EMS crew to work here, though, I make sure they know they're going to be monitored closely. We will not tolerate anyone giving anything but their best to the taxpayers of Lee County, just like the people in Dougherty County expect the best of their personnel."

THIRD OF A LIFE

EMTs on both counties' staffs have something of an advantage over their firefighting brethren. Where EMTs work one 24-hour shift and then have 72 hours off, firefighters work 24 hours on and have 48 off. That cuts into their family time considerably.

"Any person who works a full-time job gives up a third of their life," Hunter, an Albany firefighter for the past 14 years and a member of the Lee unit for 2 1/2 years, said. "What we're doing is working two full-time jobs. We miss out on a lot, but we're all doing it for our families.

"For those of us who love this profession, the experience that we gain from working two jobs is valuable. But initially, we all do it for the money."

Money also makes the utilization of already trained workers a plus for emergency services leaders when budget time rolls around.

"We tapped into this concept when we were hit during our last ISO (Insurance Services Office) audit for a policy that allows for up to five firefighters to get leave on any given day," Albany Fire Chief James Carswell, a 38-year veteran with the force, said. "To make up for the shortfall in manpower if the maximum number took leave at any given time, we'd have to hire 15 new people. Even with basic pay, when you figure in benefits, that would easily be a half-million dollars a year.

"We've hired 18 part-timers in our suppression (firefighting) division, and we're in the mode to hire 30-35 more. The part-timers can only work so many hours, and that keeps us from having to pay benefits."

While the willing supply of well-trained personnel has helped the Albany Fire Department with its staffing issues, the extensive training and experiences of the Albany/Dougherty County personnel serves Lee County well.

"They answer around 20,000 calls a year in Dougherty County, while we handle about 2,500," Watkins said. "All of our EMTs are trained well and certified, but the real benefit for us is in the number of calls they respond to as part of the Dougherty County staff."

Howell agrees.

"What we get when we bring on an Albany firefighter -- or one of ours works in Albany -- is a tremendous amount of experience," Howell said. "They're just going to see things over there that they wouldn't see here.

"Albany is a much larger city, and it is much more prone to fire than Leesburg and Lee County. When we get someone with that experience, we get seasoned officers."

The close working relationship between the neighboring counties did not always exist. In fact, AFD Assistant Chief Ronald Rowe said the naming of former AFD Chief Joe Pollock to the same position with the Lee Fire Department ushered in an era of cooperation.

"To say that tension existed between the two departments is a nice way to put it," Howell said. "And we're not talking about with the firefighters -- everyone was fine there. It was with some of the government officials that you didn't get a sense that cooperation was looked upon favorably."

THE BOTTOM LINE

Meanwhile, the men and women who pull the double shifts say that their bottom line revolves around the dollar sign.

"My main motivation is to make enough money to survive, to make a decent living for my family," said EMT Rick Dooling, who has worked with Dougherty EMS for 16 years and 10 in Lee County. "Quite frankly, if the workload in Lee County was even close to what it is here in Dougherty County, I probably wouldn't be able to do it."

Stuart Burke, who has worked with Dougherty EMS for nine years and with Lee for two, said pulling double duty can be frustrating.

"I love this job; I tried being a cop because my dad was one, but I found it wasn't for me," he said. "It's been an adjustment, and it can be frustrating to be put in a position where you have to work two jobs like this just to make a living."

Kelly Harcrow, a 22-year veteran who is a battallion chief with AFD and a captain in Lee County, said money is a motivating factor for his daunting schedule, but he said it's about more than money.

"To be honest with you, if I worked 24 hours on and took 48 completely off, I'd go stir crazy," he said. "I've always worked part-time jobs -- building houses, installing alarm systems -- but I decided if I was going to work another job anyway, why not do what I know and love?

"Sure, it can be tough at times, but we're fortunate that our superiors in both counties work with us as much as they possibly can. We're going to miss out on a lot of family stuff, and when we do have time off we have to make sure we get our 'honey-dos' done."

Thompson, a lieutenant who has nine years of experience with AFD and seven with LFD, said working with a 154-person staff in Albany helps him prepare to work with a 36-person staff in Lee County.

"You have to make decisions (in Lee County) that are made by others in Dougherty County," he said. "The experience that you get carries over and makes you a better firefighter."

Money issues notwithstanding, it's easy to wonder how a high-stress job that includes calls like the one Dooling got one night for a "foot laceration" that was actually for an East Albany man who had taken a skillsaw and cut off his own foot mid-calf -- "A couple of years later another crew got a call to the same address, and the guy had cut off his other foot." -- would be so appealing.

Tripp said the answer is quite simple.

"This is a calling," the 38-year veteran said. "The people who do these jobs for a living have a passion for them. If they go into it doing it for the paycheck, they don't last very long."

Still, Carswell says, there is a line that has to be drawn as these agencies consider utilizing experienced staff from other counties.

"Even though they work for both counties, there is a separation," the AFD chief said. "If you work here, you're expected to do the job. What people do on their days off, unless it conflicts with their job here, well, that's their business.

"But we do not share resources. The taxpayers of Dougherty County are not supplementing Lee County, and vice versa. Everyone benefits, but there is a line of understanding drawn by both counties."