published Sunday, November 3rd, 2013

Soddy-Daisy hires first full-time firefighters in its 45-year history (with video)

FINANCING FIREFIGHTING

* Entry level full-time salary: $36,962

* Highest possible full-time salary: $42,557*

* Entry level part-time wage: $11.35 per hour

* Highest possible part-time wage: $13.51 per hour

* Entry level chief salary: $51,792

* Highest possible chief salary: $56,611

* All positions top out at four years of employment with necessary training, accredidation. Higher starting salaries and wages may be offered, dependent on accredidation, experience.

  • photo
    Chief Mike Guffey, left, and newly-hired full-time firefighter Tyler Stout train at the No. 1 firehall in Soddy-Daisy. The chief and five other paid firefighters will work with a large group of volunteer firefighters.
    Photo by John Rawlston.
    enlarge photo

The city of Soddy-Daisy was incorporated in 1969, partly because residents didn't feel like the area had adequate fire coverage.

After incorporation, the city got a tanker, on loan from a Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., fire department -- and the tanker had to be towed wherever it went.

Those were the old days. Not necessarily the good old days.

These are the new days for the fire department, with its fleet of yellow -- working -- fire engines.

And the new days of getting paid to be a firefighter in Soddy-Daisy, a first in the city's history.

"We're still in that euphoric feeling," said Tyler Stout, one of five full-time firefighters the city just hired. The full-time staffers started Oct. 14.

It's a dream come true for Stout and his four colleagues. All of them, except Dusty Morgan, are under 30. Morgan turned 30 last week. They're all graduates of Soddy-Daisy High School.

It's also a dream for their chief, Mike Guffey, a 25-year veteran of the department, who was also hired full-time.

"I'm a lot happier now," he said. Although, "I went from working 12 hours a day to 17." Only halfway a joke.

The crew is still in the honeymoon period, but being full-time employees has meant some changes in duties.

Station One doesn't mop itself.

"Cleaning alone in this building -- it's a two-day job," Guffey said Tuesday, motioning around the Station One engine bay, with its spotless concrete floor.

And it's hard to ask a volunteer to do grunt work.

"Nobody wants to clean a bathroom if they're not getting paid for it," Guffey said.

But outside of having everyday tasks covered, there were serious safety concerns behind the move to staff the department during the day between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m.

City Manager Hardie Stulce said he, Guffey and city officials saw "the potential for a problem," with fire coverage during the day. In recent years, it's become tougher to get boots on the ground when everybody is at work. And that's when the fire department is needed the most, Guffey said.

Folks can't take off from work like they used to. Some employers don't allow it, and some volunteers can't afford it.

High schoolers can't take off from school to work a fire like they used to, either.

"Times change," Stulce said. "It was too much of a liability to let high school kids jump in their car and go to a fire."

Changing times, changing attitudes, he said. Guffey sees it, too.

"I really think volunteerism is starting to wane off," he said.

For 45 years, the city had no trouble finding help. Until recent years, the department always "had people who would show up," Guffey said.

They were people like Guffy, who worked full-time at one job and volunteered at the fire department later.

And they did it all despite the numbers, which were against the department. Soddy-Daisy is the second-largest city in Hamilton County, with nearly 13,000 residents and 22 square miles of land.

"It speaks well of the people who have volunteered over the years," Stulce said. "You could say that the department is its own worst enemy."

Because the all-volunteer department covered the city so well for so long, Stulce said there was a worry that Soddy-Daisy tax payers would question the need to start paying city firefighters.

He said the city could have afforded to pay the five full-time firefighters, Guffey and 12 part-timers without raising taxes.

But the city is expecting $6 million in 80/20 matching highway grants from the federal government soon. That will put a $1 million-plus responsibility on the city.

"So we had to have the money anyway," Stulce said.

He said the city saved money by plucking two full-time police officers to fill two of the six full-time fire department positions. The police department did not get those positions back.

All the others were chosen from the department's nearly 60 volunteers. It was only fair to "consider these people who have been doing it all this time for nothing," Stulce said.

The city will maintain its large volunteer department, and Guffey hopes to continue to grow the paid staff. Already, he thinks Soddy-Daisy residents will see faster response times.

"If something happens, [fire personnel] are going to be there within minutes now, instead of 10 minutes," he said. And "10 minutes on a fire is a big jump."

Contact staff writer Alex Green at agreen@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731.

about Alex Green...

Alex Green joined the Times Free Press staff full-time in January 2014 after completing the paper's six-month, general assignment reporter internship. Alex grew up in Dayton, Tenn., which is also where he studied journalism at Bryan College. He graduated from Rhea County High School in 2008. During college, Alex covered the city of Graysville and the town of Spring City for The Herald-News. As editor-in-chief of Bryan College's student news group, Triangle, Alex reported on ...

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