South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

MFPD chief disputes Kolb’s claim of ‘revolving door of employees’

Employees using fire district ‘as a launch pad,’ Kolb says
Brian Hendricks
Brian Hendricks

Mehlville Fire Protection District Chief Brian Hendricks disputes a board candidate’s claim that the district has an excessive number of employees leaving for jobs with other fire agencies.

Jane Kolb of Oakville, who is challenging board Chairman Aaron Hilmer of Oakville in the April 4 Board of Directors election, contends the district is “required to perpetually train and rely on a revolving door of employees.”

Hendricks bristles at Kolb’s claim, saying, “I don’t see turnover as an issue.”

Mehlville is unique compared to other county fire protection districts given the high volume of daily calls to which the district responds, he told the Call. For example, employees at many other fire districts work a 48/96 schedule in which they are on duty for 48 hours and then are off for 96 hours.

Mehlville employees work 24 hours, are off 24 hours, work 24 hours and then are off for 48 hours. They then work 24 hours, are off 24 hours, work 24 hours and then are off for 96 hours.

“In the fire service, Mehlville is different,” Hendricks said. “OK, we run 15,000 calls a year, and I don’t begrudge a 26- or 27-year-old employee that says, ‘I’m young. I’ve got a bright future. I want to go to a department somewhere else where the pay’s better and I don’t have to run as many calls. I don’t begrudge that employee for doing that, personally.

“So I don’t see it as an issue. Turnover is not something that bothers me. What’s happened I think here is I’ve personally heard a lot of complaints about the work schedule. And I’ve said to the employees, ‘We’re different than a lot of county departments.’ You can work a 48/96 work schedule when your average call load is two or three calls in a day. But when you’re running eight, nine, 10, 12 calls a day, it’s just hard for me to justify putting my employees through that. I do care about their well-being. I do care about sleep deprivation. I do care about the hardships that that shift could put on them.”

As a result, some employees leave for districts that have a 48/96 work schedule.

“I don’t think we have a turnover problem, and I don’t know why it’s gotten blown out of proportion to the magnitude that it has, because when you look at the numbers and you include retirements, I just don’t see it,” the chief said. “It’s not something that inhibits day-to-day operations. It’s not something that inhibits the service we provide to our taxpayers. We haven’t skipped a beat.”

From 2012 through 2016, an average of 2.6 employees left per year for jobs with other fire districts — 2.02 percent, according to information compiled by the district.

However, Kolb, who is married to a firefighter/paramedic in the Monarch Fire Protection District, remains convinced the number of employees leaving Mehlville for jobs in other districts is excessive.

For example, she posted on her candidate Facebook page, “… Our district can’t retain first responders. Why is that? This constant use of MFPD as a launch pad is being paid for by our tax dollars. I for one am not OK with that. We are lucky that we have some dedicated men and women who have stuck around, but for how much longer? …”

Kolb told the Call that she has not spoken with Hendricks regarding employee turnover or sought documentation regarding turnover from the district.

Asked why she is challenging Hilmer, who is seeking a third six-year term on the board, Kolb said, “I obviously have an interest because I’m around it so much. It’s a part of my life, and so that’s what really kind of piqued my interest to begin with. And then I did, I saw these pretty firehouses. I was like, ‘My God, these are incredible,’ and so I would be talking to various first responder friends and it was not all I was under the impression that it was. That facade was not necessarily representative of what was going on on the inside.

“And again, talking to first responders who once worked here and left, they were so unhappy. And everyone who is still there that I’m talking to, they’re not saying, ‘Man, we don’t get paid enough,’ as my opponent had said in the Hotline article when he said, ‘We’re getting screwed again,’ that was not in reference to pay and benefits.”

Kolb added, “The working environment is not great. There’s a contentious relationship with the board. I mean, my opponent has said in other articles that he’s there for the taxpayers, and I think as a board member that’s absolutely important, but you also have to have input from these first responders. I mean, they’re the professionals here. The board members are supposed to be overseeing these decisions, and I think there needs to be a lot more input from the men and women themselves than we’re having now.”

Hendricks, who has served as chief since 2011, believes district employees are treated “incredibly well” and that their input is valued.

“The way I look at it is this way: The community elected three members of the Board of Directors and the community decides the thresholds and the benefit packages they want to provide their employees,” he said. “And it is the board’s job to deliver that message to the community. The Mehlville Fire Protection District offers you this. If you want something beyond that, we wish you well.

“I feel we treat our employees incredibly well. I think we’re fair. We listen to them. We’re always open to ideas, but we all have rules we have to live by. We all have our marching orders and at this juncture, it just doesn’t seem that the citizens of south St. Louis County want to pay their firefighters $150,000 a year, and that’s their right. This is their fire department.”

But Hendricks doesn’t begrudge any employee who wants to move on for greener pastures.

“I wish them nothing but the best. I do exit interviews with the young men and women that leave, and I always say the same thing, ‘I wish you nothing but the best. I hope you find what you’re looking for,'” he said. “That’s it. I just in my heart don’t have a problem. I don’t see turnover as an issue.”

However, Kolb said the turnover issue has resulted in “a constant revolving door of people, and that would be a concern of mine if I was a first responder to know that the person I’m working alongside may not have as many years of service as I would like …”

Hendricks said he and his command staff strive to ensure the safety of employees.

“The way I approach the employees that work here is I have a responsibility not only to the employee, but the employee’s family, to provide them with safe working conditions so their husband or wife will go home every day,” he said. “I don’t take it lightly. I carry it with me everywhere I go, and we strive as an administrative staff to do that. And sometimes it’s a little disheartening when people try to undermine the hard work and dedication that we have as an administrative staff and they start throwing around some of this stuff.

“It’s a little disheartening because I’ve never met a more compassionate, understanding command staff that cares so deeply for these people, and when you get to this time of the year, it’s hard to say it’s not hurtful …”

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