COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Losing five paramedics and a firefighter from a total force of 424 doesn't seem like a big personnel drain but it continues a trend affecting the Colorado Springs Fire Department.
Fire officials said the city authorized a force of 450 in 2007, but 26 have left since then, apparently for similar jobs in other cities.
"We got a 2 percent across-the-board raise and a 5 percent raise for paramedics this year," said David Knoblitt, president of the Colorado Springs Professional Firefighters Association, which is the city firefighters union.
"But on average, our pay still averages 5 percent below that of departments in comparable cities," he said. "We're concerned about being able to attract and retain quality employees. We've lost six since last fall."
To cover shifts and avoid lowering response times, Knoblitt said, the department relies on a mandatory overtime policy.
"During holidays and summer is when you really see the stress in the system," he said.
Randy Royal, a deputy chief for the department, said around a third of the force works most of the overtime.
"It's because they want to," he said. "But we don't want to have to force someone to work an extra shift. That's happened three times this year."
Royal and Knoblitt said they understand that the city has other budget priorities.
"Stormwater projects is one priority," Knoblitt said. "We have agreed with the city about how firefighters should be paid but we've fallen behind that."
"We'd all like to make more money but we have to live within our means," Royal said.
Knoblitt said the union plans to talk with incumbent and challenging City Council candidates for the April election to emphasize the need for better firefighter pay.
Additional personnel will come later this year from the department's academy, which will have 30 recruits -- around 10 more than usual.
"Twelve of them are paramedics," Royal said. "We've got to fill the five positions we lost, and soon."