Ferndale public safety departments dealing with low staffing levels

By: Mike Koury | Woodward Talk | Published February 24, 2021


FERNDALE — The public safety departments in Ferndale have been looking at labor recently, as both the Police and Fire departments have been understaffed.

Toward the end of last year, the Ferndale Police Department lost three officers on its staff due to retirement, including former Chief Vincent Palazzolo. Another two retirements are expected to come in the next several months.

On top of those retirements, four other officers have left for other jobs in different cities, leaving up to nine potential staffing positions that the department needs to fill.

Police Chief Dennis Emmi said that all of these losses set in motion the department’s hiring process, which he described as lengthy and filled with background checks, testing and a four-month field training officer program. During that entire time, the department still doesn’t have the vacant position filled.

“What we’re going through, every single police department in my region is going through the same thing,” he said. “We’re all trying to hire people, and we’re at a place where we’re constantly hiring. Just because of retirements and then when you have unanticipated losses like people leaving just for job changes, it does sneak up and bite you, because four people leaving in a year, it’s hard to replace those people, but it’s kind of where we’re at.”

Ferndale’s Fire Department also has been dealing with low staffing levels. Within its current budget, it can have up to 26 firefighters on staff across its two stations. As of now, the department has 19 firefighters and, with the additions of its fire marshal and fire chief, Teresa Robinson, a total of 21 employees on staff.

With five vacancies, the Fire Department has a minimum of six firefighters working every day between the two stations. Robinson, who started her job as fire chief Feb. 1, said at one point in time they had up to 10 firefighters minimum working. She hopes the department soon can get back to that level.

“(We) have vacancies that we are looking for qualified candidates to hire and fill those vacancies,” she said. “That is a challenge. Just coming through the door, obviously I haven’t had much time to try to impact that, but I’m going to become very active in that process to try to draw in and attract candidates and look at those that have applied to see if they are qualified and a good fit for Ferndale. But it is something we’re actively trying to work on, because I do need to get some more firefighters on.”

For public safety as a whole, Emmi stated it’s difficult to find applicants. Ferndale does have a couple of officers in training now and has invested in new hires for the department.

“We’re having pretty good luck with recruiting,” he said. “We’re about to hire on a few more so we can give ourselves a little bit of cushion. It’s tough times right now, but we’ll push through it. I can guarantee you that no resident is going to notice any decline in service.”

Robinson also pointed to the problem that, while they have men and women on staff doing a great job and working extra shifts to make sure they’re at a minimum staffing level, those hours add up and begin to take a toll.

“Every time you’re working an additional 24-hour shift, that’s (an) additional 24 hours away from your family,” she said. “The men and women here have been doing it — without complaining — just doing their part and digging and getting down and making sure that we always have people here working, but as chief I know that that’s not sustainable, and I need to get people through the door to allow everybody to do their share and not feel like they’re carrying extra all the time.”

Both chiefs stated that their current staffing levels have nothing to do with budget issues, but more so the ability to find qualified candidates. They also didn’t feel like the COVID-19 pandemic has caused any issues in hiring officers or firefighters, but it possibly might have delayed the training and requirements that candidates need to go through in their respective academies.

Robinson stated the pandemic hasn’t stopped the Fire Department from hiring, but has made the process more difficult.

“If they haven’t done these things prior to COVID, it puts them in a tough situation to complete the things they needed to do for the hiring process, like the physical ability test, the (Candidate Physical Abilities Test), and if that’s not being offered anywhere and they haven’t done it, it affects us that way as far as candidates being able to get their requirements,” she said.