HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- It was a landmark day Wednesday for firefighters in Huntington.
For the first time in four years, new recruits were sworn in. It couldn't have come at a better time, as the fire department battles low staffing levels and high overtime pay.
Whether the new hires will be enough to ease the pain is still debatable, though.
Whatever the case, it has been a long journey for the new firefighter recruits.
“It's going to sound cheesy, but I've wanted to do this since I was a little kid,” said Trey Ford, one of the recruits.
“Since 9/11, since September 11 when the firefighters and first responders risked their lives. That really had an impact on me,” fellow recruit Mark Littlejohn said.
But, for the city, the journey to hire these firefighters has been a painful road riddled with understaffing and funding issues.
“It’s a bigger chance of losing lives, and that’s the biggest thing we’re against is we want to make sure all our people are safe,” said Ray Canafax, president of the Huntington Firefighter Union. “The mayor instructed the chief to make a change that if any sick time usage, family leave, family sick or off the job injury, we’re not filling overtime for that. So, if you have 25 and someone calls in sick, that drops us below 25 for that day.”
Huntington Mayor Kim Wolfe said, “We have budgetary restraints, and I have a fiscal responsibility to the citizens.”
This fiscal year, $200,000 was budgeted for unscheduled overtime. In the first six weeks, the department had already spent $72,000 or about 25 percent of the total budget.
“We had to look at that so we could make adjustments and not run out prematurely,” Wolfe said.
Now, 10 new recruits finishing their final weeks of training at the fire academy promise some relief.
“It’s not going to be a complete help because it’s still going to put us to where we’re below the 28 we need everyday without having to spend overtime,” Canafax said.
The fire department would like to maintain staffing levels of 28 per shift. But, it has dipped to 25 because of budget cuts, which sometimes means shutting down a truck.
During a Huntington City Council Finance Committee meeting Wednesday night, council members said there had never been a budget crisis -- saying there was plenty of money available for overtime.