OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee City Council unanimously agreed to pay for paramedic training for any city firefighter who wants it. At the council meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 7, all city council members agreed they wanted to give the city firefighters the opportunity for the training. All five council members expressed concern for the future of the firefighters and because this training will make the firefighters more desirable to employers, they had no qualms about helping them achieve it.
The only complication was the wording in the employee handbook, which states the employees will either work for the city for two years after their training or they will reimburse the city for the cost of the training. If the county takes over the city’s fire protection, the city firefighters will no longer be employed by the city and, under normal circumstances, would have to reimburse the city for the cost of their education. But council members wanted to ensure they did not have to do this.
They considered amending the wording in the handbook, but the new city attorney, John Fumero, advised against it. He explained that the wording was perfect under normal circumstances, and if they changed it, that would affect all employees who attended school under the education reimbursement plan. Instead, he suggested making a new contract specifically for this circumstance.
In the contract, they would specify the guidelines for what they will do if the fire departments merge and what they will do if they do not merge. If the departments merge, the firefighters would be exempt from the two-year commitment and would not have to pay back the money spent on their schooling. If the departments do not merge, the firefighters would be required to either continue working for the city for two years or reimburse the city for the money it spent.
It was also decided that all city firefighters would be offered the opportunity to further their educations, including those on probation.
Representatives from Indian River State College attended the meeting, and Russ Brown, provost at IRSC, and Dr. Ann Hubbard, dean of health sciences, explained they were willing to help in any way needed. They have arranged to offer a paramedic program in Okeechobee and are willing to start the program whenever the city chooses. The program is normally a two-year program with breaks for the summer, but they are willing to just continue on with the classes, so the firefighters should be able to complete the course in just over one year.
Normally, the cost of the course would be over $9,000 per student, but because these firefighters are already employed in the field, their costs would be reduced to approximately $6,000. This is because some of the costs have already been absorbed by their employers.
The classes will take place in Okeechobee and firefighters will be able to take classes during their scheduled work hours and just leave the class when they need to respond to a call. The lectures will be recorded so they will be able to make up for the missed class later.
There are 10 city firefighters interested in taking the class and six county firefighters. At this time, the county is only hiring firefighter/paramedics, so the only chance the city firefighters have to be considered for employment with the county is to take this class.
Capt. Lalo Rodriguez of the city fire department suggested starting the classes immediately so if the merge happens in October, they will be three-fourths of the way through the program, and this would help with their chances to be hired by the county.
City Finance Director India Riedel was tasked with finding the $60,000 it will take to pay for the classes, because there was no money budgeted for it when council members passed their new budget.