Phoenix Staff Writer
After more than 35 years with the Muskogee Fire Department, Assistant Fire Chief Wayne Shiew decided it’s time to retire.
“It’s a young man’s game,“ said Shiew, 57, who will retire in June.
The Muskogee Fire Department could have a slew of younger firefighters by this time next year.
At least 20 Muskogee firefighters, all ranked captain or above, are to retire within the next year. The retirements are all coming at once because 2012 is the year their pensions start reflecting a pay raise voters had approved in 2004.
“The next year, 2012 is going to be very exciting, very fun and a lot of work,” Muskogee Fire Chief Derek Tatum said, calling the retirements the “biggest mass exodus in the history of the department.”
The retirements could affect nearly one-fifth of the 96-member staff, Tatum said.
The Muskogee Fire Department has 89 people working in what Tatum called “fire suppression,” plus two fire marshals, two mechanics, a training officer, a special operations officer and the chief.
Tatum said the fire department started advertising for new firefighters before Thanksgiving and had 77 applicants by the time the hiring period ended Dec. 16. The applicants are to take the written test this week.
However, even with new hires, the retirements mean a major loss of seniority, he said.
“I’m losing a majority of my command staff,” Tatum said. “I’m losing my two assistant chiefs. I know I’ll lose one fire marshal, maybe two. I’m losing both mechanics. The rest are captains.”
Tatum said he couldn’t begin to count the number of years experience these 20 employees had with the Muskogee Fire Department. Many of the firefighters came in 1970, when the department expanded to add Station 6 on Peak Boulevard and Station 7 at 40th Street and Broadway.
“A lot of people were hired in 1970 and we’re now beginning to see the same influx of people leave.”
Shiew said he’ll retire June 1, just 13 days shy of his 36th anniversary with the fire department. He said staying until the 36-year mark would not give him extra benefits.
“The department has changed a little bit and I’m getting a little older,” he said. “ Work is harder now, and I’m not even on the front line trucks anymore.”
Shiew said his job now involves overseeing staff, inspecting fire stations and equipment. He also is a commanding officer on fire scenes.
Tatum said the department will fill the assistant chief, marshals’ and captains’ posts from within.
“For the last six months, we’ve had people working as captains, working as drivers, taking the role of captain,” he said.
Each captain is in charge of his crew. They are the incident commanders in charge of a fire or rescue scene.
During a fire, “they might tell their crew to enter through the south side of a house to fight the fire,” Tatum said. “They may be assigned to putting a small grass fire out to running a complex emergency scene.”
The department likely won’t replace the mechanics, who are considered civilians, he said. The city of Muskogee is considering consolidation of mechanic services among the departments, he said.
“It’s a way to use equipment and manpower more wisely,” Tatum said. “We are still in the design phase of this and still working on a game plan.”
New fire department recruits will have to do a lot of training with the Oklahoma State University Fire Service Training program, Tatum said. “We train all the time, we’ll have to do pre-training and post-training to bring on our new recruits.”
The city of Muskogee had to change its city charter to broaden the field of new recruits. Until a charter change election in November 2010, only people under age 30 who live in Muskogee could apply for the fire department job. The residency requirement since has been dropped and the maximum applicant age is 45.
Retiring firefighters’ pensions will be paid through a state pension program in which firefighters contributed 8 percent and the city contributed 13 percent.
Reach Cathy Spaulding at (918) 684-2928 or firstname.lastname@example.org.