Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Lt. Gannon Spangler washes soap off of a fire truck at the Signal Mountain Fire and Police Departments on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021 in Signal Mountain, Tenn.

The town of Signal Mountain, Tennessee, is having trouble attracting and retaining employees, particularly in its fire and police departments. Department heads say they get few or no applicants for open jobs and often lose new recruits after training to area public service agencies with better pay and benefits.

Former Signal Mountain police Chief Boyd Veal said losing employees over pay was an even bigger problem when he first became town manager around 2013.

"We had, especially in fire and police but in other departments, somewhat of a revolving door in that we were hiring people in, getting them trained, getting [them] experience and they were being hired away almost immediately," Veal said.

He said employee retention improved when the town restructured its pay schedule to enable employees to reach higher pay classifications more quickly, and three years ago pay rates were increased by 5%.

"We're not that uncompetitive with other local departments, but our beginning pay just hasn't kept up with what some of the other ones in the area are doing," Signal Mountain Fire Department Chief Eric Mitchell said. "When people start hiring, they see the higher beginning pay, and we've lost some good firefighters."

According to a salary survey of area public sector agencies conducted during the fourth quarter of 2020 by Burris, Thompson & Associates, the median starting pay for Firefighter 2 — the classification most of Signal Mountain's firefighters fall under — is $13.10 per hour for the 171 firefighters in that position across the 10 reporting agencies that participated in the survey.

Firefighter 2 classification requires Firefighter 1 certification and qualification as either an emergency medical technician or an advanced emergency medical technician.

Signal Mountain's pay rate for Firefighter 2 is $10.71 per hour, but that's not actually the hourly base rate. The way the department's schedules are structured makes pay comparisons difficult, which is one reason the town's personnel committee is recommending the council pay for a more detailed compensation and classification study.

The Signal Mountain Fire Department's pay structure is unusual in that firefighters' annual salary includes 2,756 hours of straight time and 156 hours at 150% of their regular wage. The $10.71 is the average amount firefighters make per hour based on the total amount earned at the standard and overtime rates combined.

While the $30,718 minimum starting pay for firefighters isn't much lower than other departments, Signal Mountain firefighters work more hours to get that amount.

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"If we're trying to retain people, and they have to work more hours for us to get to the same pay, that could be part of the retention problem," Signal Mountain personnel committee member Kathryn Corley said. "It looks like we're really underpaying our firefighters by a lot, but again I don't know the industry."

Mitchell said he's lost five of the department's 29 firefighters to other local public safety agencies over the past two and a half years. They all noted better salary and benefits at another agency as their reason for leaving, he said.

The pay rate for Signal Mountain police officers is actually a little above that of similarly sized towns that participated in the salary survey, but it takes Signal Mountain officers longer to reach higher pay grades.

"Other places move employees quicker through pay grades than we do," Mitchell said.

Rex Barton, police management consultant for the University of Tennessee's Municipal Technical Advisory Service, said the problem of retaining officers isn't isolated to Signal Mountain.

Small towns near metropolitan areas such as Nashville have similar problems. The starting salary in places such as Brentwood, Franklin and Murfreesboro is several thousand dollars higher than in towns of similar sizes.

"The market for police officers is pretty hot," Barton said, adding that Signal Mountain is wise to consider taking proactive steps to keep its officers.

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Starting firefighter salaries at area agencies:

*Catoosa County, Ga.: $36,889

*Chattanooga: $33,700

*Cleveland: $46,995

*Dayton: $38,765

*Red Bank: $36,290.58

*Signal Mountain: $32,025-$35,228 (starting range based on experience)

*Soddy-Daisy: $40,055

*Walker County, Ga.: $34,427

*Whitfield County, Ga.: $31,428

*Bradley County: $31,405

*Sevierville: $37,536

*Average: $35,089

Source: Salary survey of area public sector agencies by Burris, Thompson & Associates, 2020