‘Brown Out’ Plan Might Temporarily Close Two Fire Stations; Commissioners Disagree Over Firefighter Pay, Volunteer Value

March 5, 2021

The Escambia County Commission learned about a draft “brown out” plan Thursday that might temporarily close two fire stations due to reduced staffing, as two commissioners disagreed over low firefighter pay and the need for volunteers.

Escambia Fire Rescue operates 21 fire stations. Thirteen stations are staffed 24 hours a day with career, seven are volunteer only, and the Century fire station has a daytime career crew weekdays and volunteer staffing at other times.

If department-wide career firefighter staffing falls below 47 when Century’s crew is on duty, or 43 after hours and weekends, a firehouse will brown out — shut down with an remaining crew members reassigned to other stations. The draft plan calls for the Warrington station to be the first to brown out, followed by Bellview if necessary.

“This is a contingency plan. This is a last-ditch effort. This is a Hail Mary,” interim Public Safety Director Eric Gilmore told commissioners. “This is in case we do go below minimum staffing levels, and we’ve got processes in place to keep us from getting there.”

“If we had COVID hit an entire house and took all those members out of the house, then we would have major problems,” Gilmore said. “We’ve got administration that’s going to step up and run those trucks, down to the interim fire chief stepping up and running the trucks. So, this is in case we get to those minimum levels that are unforeseen, or things happen or we lose additional staff. So that’s what this plan is. It is a last-ditch effort…There are things we’ll do. We’ll pull volunteers from other houses; we’ll stand up a volunteer house. So from administration to the volunteers, we’ll do everything we can to get to that point.”

“You have to do this because we have been on a long trajectory underfunding the public safety. You have to do this, the same way as if you’re crash landing an airplane; you still have to through an emergency landing check,” Commissioner Doug Underhill told Gilmore at a Thursday morning commission session. “When you’re losing airspeed and altitude, every single minute, you’re crashing. We are losing airspeed and altitude with regard to fire safety in this county, and we have been for a long time. You are undermanned. You told me in my office that our pay rates are not competitive for firefighters in this area.”

“That is correct. We are lowest in the Panhandle; we are lowest,” Gilmore responded. “We have lost members to surrounding departments because of that.”

Underhill said with a low pay rate, Escambia County is training “great cops and great firefighters” to go serve at other departments. He said that if Escambia County still has staffing problems, equipment breaking down, and a brown out plan, the commission did not give the department adequate funding.

“There are firefighters right now in Escambia County making six figures, lieutenants making over six figures,” Bergosh challenged. “It’s a tough job. It’s a challenging job. But if you work a career there, you retire in your late 40s or early 50s with a full pension, and you make tremendous money for this area. So, I think we do need to raise starting pay, and, of course, I’m going to support that.”

“But the other thing we need to do is treat our volunteers better. We haven’t been treating them well. They have been wholesale run out of many firehouses, and I’m working against that. That’s a big problem,” Bergosh continued. “Volunteers work for a $400 a month stipend, Doug. It’s a lot cheaper to do that than pay a fully loaded career (firefighter) a 50, 60, 70, a 100 (thousand). We need to recruit volunteers. There are many out there that want to serve. Many firehouses are run 100% volunteer…I support all firefighters.”

“We need to embrace a culture of volunteers. Instead of running them out, strangling from getting the training they need so they can’t serve. We’ve also had a tremendous leadership vacuum, two years without a fire chief,” added Bergosh. “But the knee-jerk isn’t do what Doug Underhill says. The knee-jerk isn’t let’s go raise taxes. I will tell you, Doug, it’s not always about how much you get paid, it’s about where you work, the community you live in, and other factors. It’s not always about money. You want to be a firefighter in Escambia County, you can make tremendous money doing it.”

District 1 Commissioner Bergosh continued, “God bless them. They do great work. I want to pay them good money, but I also want to get our volunteers back into all the firehouses, and I want them to be treated well.”

Underhill replied that in the “built-up” part of the county, which he defined as south of I-10, the volunteer service failed to achieve objectives.

“Volunteer service is an augmentation to professional service, but every single citizen in my district deserves to have a professionally trained, professional outfitted fire team arrive at their home in their time of need,” Underhill said. “I love the bit of Americana that is the volunteer fire service, it is perfectly appropriate in rural areas.”

Gilmore told NorthEscambia.com that volunteer firefighters in Escambia County are issued the same equipment as career firefighters, and the volunteers also have state certification in order to perform in their capacity as firefighters.


26 Responses to “‘Brown Out’ Plan Might Temporarily Close Two Fire Stations; Commissioners Disagree Over Firefighter Pay, Volunteer Value”

  1. OhYouKnow on March 9th, 2021 8:25 am

    God Bless Volunteers. All Stations should have a core professional firefighter compliment. We pay the taxes for this.

  2. Rasheed Jackson on March 8th, 2021 1:18 pm

    For all the people who are slamming the volunteers, let us remember they were the ones that built the fire departments from the ground up. They are the ones that fought to get the county funding. Before that they were the ones doing fundraisers to raise money to purchase equipment. They were the ones that answered the calls in the middle of the night and many times were up all night then went to work the next day on their paying job. They were the ones that gave up time with their families on holidays and family gatherings to answer the call to help a total stranger. They were the ones that went door to door asking for donations to help keep their stations open. They were the ones that used their personal vehicles to get to fires and many times paid for their own training. Many times, they used their own personal vacation time to train.

    So, to all the volunteer fire fighters out there then and now, thank you for your service, dedication and willingness to serve your community!!

  3. Dj Stone on March 7th, 2021 10:27 pm

    How many more citizens have to suffer due to lack of response? Career firefighters have been the best thing to happen to the citizens. Volunteers have a place and are valued however, If volunteers were adequate, career firefighters would not have been put in place. Terribly disheartening watching the lack of support from PAID politicians…. When is enough, enough?

  4. SueB on March 6th, 2021 10:09 am

    Take the 4% gas hike from the failed Escambia Bus System for Fire Fighters!

  5. Paramedic on March 5th, 2021 10:24 pm

    EMS has been “browned out” for months now. Running with a skeleton crew holding calls nearly non stop. Turnover is out of hand. It’s a miracle if a crew gets to go home on time.

  6. Not Enough Indians on March 5th, 2021 4:26 pm

    As a recent’ish “former” Volunteer Fire Chief ….. I can tell you just how the volunteers feel valued….. especially since circa 2000 and beyond..

  7. I question Molino pt. 2 on March 5th, 2021 1:09 pm

    All training is funneled through the training office and emails are disseminated equally to all members of ecfr.
    Once again the physical requirements are set forth from a national standard. Every other Fire department in the area and region has a physical ability test that a candidate must pass prior to engaging and firefighting operations.
    The unification plan was brought forth by fire admin and the offer for paid on call personnel to Ride along with a career crew has been an open door for the last several years. The rhetoric that you are providing is misinformation.
    As far as paid on call and career firefighters being treated equally is
    sof thousands of dollars that doesn’t sit well with me and I guarantee it wouldn’t sit well with other taxpayers.

  8. mom on March 5th, 2021 1:06 pm

    That’s just great! Let our houses burn down because our elected officials want to fight over stupid stuff!

  9. Common sense/ Facts on March 5th, 2021 1:03 pm

    Anybody touting “volunteers” are the answer, tell me why the only reason that fire stations are staffed with paid firemen is because of the fact that the volunteers have let houses burn down, people and children die because no volunteer responded to the call. For example, the only reason Ferry Pass had a career crew put in is because there were two houses around the corner from the station that burned down without a single volunteer response from that fire house which was “volunteer only” at the time. . Station 16 had a person die around the corner from the firehouse during a structure fire where no one from the “volunteer only” station responded. Oh and let’s not forget when 4 freaking kids died in a house fire in Brownsville because no one responded from “volunteer only” firehouse in that district. If there were capable volunteers who actually lived up to their commitments in these firehouses maybe these lives and houses may have stood a chance, and there would indeed be no need for paid firemen in these houses. But to that point, at least you know if you have a paid 24 Hour crew in these firehouses you don’t have to flip a coin to see if they are responding. It is guaranteed you will have an adequately trained crew responding to your emergency any time of day or night. And if anybody disagrees with this statement, you need to have your head checked. If it was your family member who suffered because no one responded from that firehouse, how would you feel knowing you could have only spent about 150-200 bucks A YEAR ( that is maximum 17 dollars a month) to know that they could have been saved by a fully staffed firehouse with a guaranteed response?

  10. Who's is right on March 5th, 2021 12:55 pm

    You are spot on about that. There have been improvements over the last few years but the improvements have been stagnant for quite some time. Fire engines that have over 100,000 miles on them and sometimes spend more time in the garage rather than on the road is a problem.

  11. I question Molino on March 5th, 2021 12:52 pm

    First of all the local fire department does not set forth the requirements to be a volunteer or a career firefighter. Those requirements are set forth by the state of Florida. Paid on call Firefighters only get a stipend if they meet 25% of calls and training and things like that. The volunteer fire coordinators have staff vehicles which they utilize, a cell phone that is paid for by the county, and they get a stipend for being the volunteer coordinator as well as the stipend for responding to calls. So you’re probably looking at in and around $10,000 a year to do the job they’re doing. All training is funneled through the training office and emails are disseminated equally to all members of ecfr. Once again the physical requirements are set forth from a national standard. Every other Fire department in the area and region has a physical ability test that a candidate must pass prior to engaging and firefighting operations. The unification plan was brought forth by fire admin and the offer for paid on call personnel to Ride along with a career crew has been an open door for the last several years. The rhetoric that you are providing is misinformation.
    As far as paid on call and career firefighters being treated equally is something that is true. There are basically no repercussions when they paid on call firefighter gets written up but the career firefighter suffers repercussions either through a poor eval suspension, or some other type of disciplinary action that affects their paycheck and their livelihood.
    As far as charters go and individual budgets, you don’t really want to open that box because of the misappropriation of funds and embezzlement that was going on and many of the past volunteer fire department boards. When you give tax dollars to members of the general public who are selected by their friends to sit on a board to manage hundreds of thousands of dollars that doesn’t sit well with me and I guarantee it wouldn’t sit well with other taxpayers.

  12. Just Sayn on March 5th, 2021 12:16 pm

    Treat Volunteers fair and have coverage..Treat Volunteers poorly and suffer the consequences. Plain and Simple.

  13. Gator on March 5th, 2021 10:53 am

    Career or volunteer doesn’t matter, what matters is trucks getting out with qualified individuals.
    Approximately 8 years ago Warrington got staffed after 2 fatal fires with no response from the station.
    A few years later ferry pass got staffed after 2 fires in district the same day and no response from station 7.
    A year or two after that west pensacola got staffed after 2 kids were burned, 1 fatally, in a fire a mile or so from the fire house and there was no response from 17.

  14. JTV on March 5th, 2021 10:39 am

    They’re quick to open alcohol sales on a Sunday and are licking their chops for the new “Feed The Children“ money the idiots of Pensacola voted for but can’t come together on my safety. I’ll definitely have signs in my yard voting for his opponent.

  15. J.Larry Seale on March 5th, 2021 10:36 am

    This what you get for living in a “cheep”
    county… This has ALLWAYS been the case…….

  16. Missed Volly on March 5th, 2021 10:30 am

    @Whoa, You do NOT haft to have a Class A or B to drive a Fire Apparatus.
    EVOC, Drivers training, Pump training and so many driving hours.
    Please know your information first! If all of the Vollys would have not been ran out and pretty much forced to the side, there most likely would not be this issue now! It is really sad that some of us that wanted to and were heavy runners can no longer do what we love because of the bs. Fire knows NO color, rank or if your career or Volunteer and it does not care about it either.

  17. retired on March 5th, 2021 10:23 am

    What ever happened to the all volunteer? We did it for love of our community and the
    satisfaction of helping one another. We welcomed anyone who wanted to help. WE knocked on doors to raise money for gas, equipment, new trucks, ETC.

    but no the commissioners found a way to get their hand in the pot, to use it as leverage for more taxes. Weren’t allowed to drive the trucks around to go shopping at walmart, acadamy sports, ETC

  18. Ken Wright on March 5th, 2021 10:06 am

    Mr Underhill needs to check his facts about the volunteer fire service. Over 70% firefighters and 85%of departments in the United States are volunteer or mostly volunteer and they are not limited to “rural areas”.

  19. Rug Rat on March 5th, 2021 9:54 am

    Well, Well, Well, I pay my fire tax on two properties every year. If my area which is Warrington will not have a staffed firehouse then do not expect fire taxes from us folks out there. It is ONLY fair! This would mean us Warrington folks would have to wait for Pleasant Grove, Innerarity Point, U.S. Navy or help from some where else. Every one knows minutes and seconds COUNT!
    P.S. Have you drove down Gulf Beach Hwy and Sorrento Road lately it is jam packed!
    I can not count the times I have seem fire rescue going down the middle of the turning lane (the lane in the middle of the east and west one lane road) on Gulf Beach Hwy. But Wai it only runs from Navy Blvd to Fairfield Drive then it is back to a two lane road.
    Oh yes, I almost forgot. Summer is coming any it gets worse with people try to get to and from the beach!

  20. Jacqueline on March 5th, 2021 9:41 am

    It’s not about what you get paid, Commissioner? Really?
    (Said by a commissioner who gets paid $80K for his part time job!)
    That’s not what the firefighters leaving Escambia County are saying!!!
    Neighboring agencies’ starting pay is higher. (I think starting pay here is $10.79?!)

    It is not just Fire Service either.
    EMS is in bad shape for staffing with some nights only 3-4 paramedics on duty for the entire county! They are leaving EMS, also.
    There are many nights that they send out “critical staffing” alerts and cannot respond to calls.

    Meanwhile, last night, the BCC just approved 4-1 to allow residential subdivisions to come to the previous AG areas in North Escambia and develop.
    They can’t even cover the county now with public safety services!
    The roads and bridges are in bad shape from deferred maintenance.

    But check http://www.escambiavotes.com for campaign contributions and you will see where the commissioner loyalties lie.
    Good bye, quality of life!

  21. Volunteer on March 5th, 2021 9:15 am

    Professional firefighters ran volunteers out a long time ago with near impossible certification requirements, with school hours offered only Monday through Friday during work hours. Now they are paying the price. Many of the professionals that helped run the volunteers out came up through the volunteer ranks. It’s sad. This push for volunteers is to little to late.

  22. Well on March 5th, 2021 8:13 am

    They do understand the county is hiring people at 10 and 12 dollars an hour with minimum wage going to 15 an hour in the next few years.
    Someone needs to get with the times, new taxes or not.
    It’s about all their Employees.

  23. Whoa on March 5th, 2021 8:06 am

    Several departments are extremely understaffed and underpaid, 12.49 /hr for someone who has to have a CDL B or A class. Ridiculous they cannot get or keep good employees like this. And services? With all the people moving here and you still have the same amount of staff and equipment that they had 17 years ago how can they maintain what is there? It’s like buying a house and never maintaining it It will just fall apart. Grants are great for new parks , sidewalks and such but if you can’t take care of it it goes to pot and looks like crap.

  24. Molino on March 5th, 2021 7:43 am

    Vol firefighters are not treated equally in Escambia county, I my self have been one for 17 years this past December. The county has two Volunteer Coordinators that do a good job, they could do a better job even a great job if they were given the tools for recruitment! They are told last minute about events that could lead to recruitment, shut down about staffing ideas, and a recruitment budget stripped down cause ECFR has horrible funding management. Volunteers in ESCAMBIA are looked down upon by ECFR admin/ career FF/FOs, reprimanded or persecuted for actions that a career FF or FO would never see, fighting to get the same training the career get( ECFR hold some trainings 8-5 weekdays where a working volunteer can’t get to). LONG wait times to get the requirements that ESCAMBIA sets forth( physical, applications, state certs). Yes, some vol stations got new trucks, but their commissioner help put that into plan, not so much by ECFR. ECFR can’t even keep a fire cheif longer than 2 years. ESCAMBIA needs to do away with the unification plan and go back to fire department charters and individual budgets, then the public will see who gets the work done! We didn’t have these problems until the unification plan was implemented!! We volunteers Volunteer out time cause we enjoy it not because of money.!

  25. Here we go again on March 5th, 2021 7:31 am

    I smell a tax increase coming.

  26. Been there on March 5th, 2021 3:24 am

    Let underwear ” volunteer” to do his Commission job- I think THAT would serve rural area’s well.

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