By PHIL ATTINGER

Staff Writer

SEBRING — Highlands County Fire Services had 183 participating volunteers in 2017. That number is down to 159 this year for Highlands County Fire Rescue.

Fire Rescue Chief Marc Bashoor told county commissioners Tuesday that he has several incentives in mind to help retain volunteers and give them more training. He had part of that on their agenda in the form of a budget amendment.

He expects the incentives and other programs to increase the countywide fire assessment and overall budget in the future.

Among the incentives already in place, he said, are the Length of Service Award Program (LOSAP) and training.

Commissioners approved a budget amendment Tuesday that will pay $38,000 toward training for volunteer firefighters.

Bashoor said he had found no plans for rewarding five years of volunteer service with fire departments, but found plenty that reward 15 years or longer.

Among those are stipend plans, he said, that give $50 per month for 15 years of service. Those who make it to 25 years or longer get a lifetime benefit, he said: Essentially a pension.

To find out what other incentives the firefighters wanted, he conducted a survey and got 109 responses.

Of those, 46 were volunteers, out of the 159 volunteers. The other 63 were from the 92 paid staff.

The majority of those surveyed, Bashoor said, had served less than five years — approximately 49% — or less than 15 years — 26%. Approximately 8% had served more than 25 years.

They wanted uniforms, specifically the HCFR-branded T-shirts and BDU-style pants, equipped with various leg pockets to serve better at storing tools and other items needed for doing their jobs on fire and medical calls.

Third highest requested incentive was pay-per-call, for volunteers, then all wanted windbreaker jackets and long-sleeve T-shirts.

Sixth on the list was tax incentives, again for volunteers.

They also asked for duty boots, Bashoor said, but he has to look at the costs for those.

Currently, the Length of Service awards are in the budget at $38,000.

Other items that might be considered include:

- Uniforms, apparel and gear, for $186,452 as a one-time expense and incentive measure.

- Training at $38,850, a one-time expense and incentive measure.

- Fuel stipend of $6 per call, up to eight calls per month, estimated at $57,600 annually if everyone takes advantage of the incentive.

- Installing reporting software on wireless devices at a cost of $31,520 for staffing, system implementation and upgrades.

To make software recurring, Bashoor said, would cost $11,000 per year.

He said he’s not yet ready to “pull the trigger” on the fuel stipend.

Commissioner Don Elwell said in the transition from a century of volunteer firefighting in Highlands County, part of this budget is part of doing business, but part of it is also to sustain volunteerism.

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