West Memphis facing problems keeping firefighters on force

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — As flames rip through homes, firefighters rush in to help.

Battalion Chief Charles Stover has been fighting fires in West Memphis for more than 30 years.

"Taking chaos and turning it into order, that's what happens when you go to a house fire," he said. "You go there and you help them. You know things are better and you get paid for it at the same time. So it's a great job, a fulfilling job."

But Stover says he's worried the West Memphis Fire Department isn't keeping the talent they recruit.

"They don't stay. They come, we train them, we spend money on them and we spent overtime to cover them."

He says they're seeing a troubling trend of firefighters joining their department, going through months of training and then transferring somewhere else.

"When they leave and you have to train somebody else, you think, 'My gosh, where does it end?" Stover said.

So why are they leaving?

Crews say they simply can't compete with the salaries offered by nearby cities. Places like Jonesboro, Southavan, Germantown and Memphis quickly sweep them away.

The entire West Memphis Department has 62 employees.

Memphis recruited two of their firefighters last year and have interviewed four so far this year.

We pulled the numbers to see how much a firefighter makes in West Memphis compared to someone working across the bridge here in Memphis.

We found a starting firefighter in Memphis makes about $3,000 more than one in West Memphis. But after the first year, they make more than $15,000 than one in West Memphis.

"That's what I make after 30 years, so you can't blame them," Stover said.

But he does blame the city.

Employees say they've only gotten a handful of cost-of-living raises in the past 15 years.

"Fire service is a dangerous thing, and we want people to stay here and get that experience where they're able to deal with situations. They have that experience under their belt," Chuck Brakensiek, in charge of paramedic, said.

Some of the buildings, built in the 60's and 70's, also need repairs.

"There are issues around the station that need to be addressed, from concrete parking lots that are all jacked up. You know they're tripping hazards. They have doors that don't open up at one of our stations because the building's settling," Stover said.

Photos taken at some of the stations show cracked walls, leaking ceilings and what some firefighters believe to be black mold.

The conditions are not fit for what they do.

"They play a big role as far as medical, hazmat and fire suppression. I mean, we even go to the schools and take part in the first day of school," Brakensiek said.

We reached out to the city of West Memphis for the story.

They said they're conducting a wage study right now.

Sources say six West Memphis firefighters recently gave their two-week notices to join the Memphis Fire Department.