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Staffing crisis boils over

Jeremy Hobbs

Sparks flew during a meeting at the Wilson County Courthouse between the county’s emergency management administration and the committee tasked with financing it.

Tensions have been high between the Wilson County Emergency Management Agency committee and the agency for a couple months, as the former explores remedies for staffing shortages plaguing the latter.

Short-term options appear limited, and the county is waiting for a pay study to be returned to know where departing personnel’s wages need to be to remain competitive with nearby counties.

More than 20 WEMA personnel, mostly paramedics and advanced emergency medical technicians, have vacated positions over the past year.

As a result of the shortages, WEMA administration has had to get creative to improvise coverage in the county’s emergency stations. At times, that has led to some stations being closed as resources are consolidated in an attempt to meet the demands on the county.

According to the agency director, 41 individuals are needed for each shift, to be considered fully-staffed. In reality, the shifts are running with 28 individuals, and that includes 3-6 weekly overtime requests. The county’s 48-hour overtime rule means that any additional overtime has to be approved by the agency director.

Community concerns

An impassioned plea from a rural county resident set the stage for the meeting that would soon follow. Michelle Pitts of Rock Springs Road near Statesville called the situation “frightening.”

Her son was born with adrenal insufficiency, which is a disruption of the body’s normal release of cortisol. It can result in a life-threatening condition characterized by low blood pressure. Symptoms tend to be non-specific and include fatigue, nausea, darkening of the skin, and dizziness upon standing.

“My child could die waiting on (first responders from) Watertown to get to me,” Pitts said. “I can inject my child, but I can not defibrillate him if he is having cardiac arrest.

“It’s petrifying as a parent and as a neighbor of someone who suffers from strokes.”

In Pitts’ mind, increasing coverage is vital.

“I just feel like our side of the county gets left out of the equation,” Pitts said. “I know it’s based on population and call numbers, but is one life more valuable than another?

“If you have to raise taxes to do this, do it.”

Fire chief ignites

Although stations in Statesville and Norene were closed on Tuesday, WEMA Deputy Director and Fire Chief Jeremy Hobbs told the committee, “Not one time has your area not been covered. There might not be people in that station, but I make a phone call and (get someone in place to back us up).”

Hobbs’ main criticism levied against the committee is an overt lack of support for the agency director.

“Commissioners (Sara) Patton and (William) Glover have not supported him (Joey Cooper) at all,” Hobbs said.

Hobbs said that the lack of support is nothing new but rather a recurring theme in the agency, one that he’s noticed during his 23 years of working there.

“How many times have I heard from Commissioner Glover as long as he’s been the chairman,” asked Hobbs. Using his hand, he answered by gesturing zero.

Glover is the committee chair but was not in attendance for the meeting on Tuesday due to quarantining restrictions from a close contact COVID-19 case.

Hobbs subsequently told Patton that some station supervisors were “playing her like a fiddle.”

“Quit calling the other captains,” Hobbs said. “They’re just trying to get their top five years for retirement. You’re playing into them. You’re playing into everything they said.

“Don’t be sneaking around the stations behind our back and talking to the guys who got disgruntled.”

The commissioner took objection to that, responding in kind to the director, “Mr. Cooper, anything you have asked for since I have been on this EMA committee, have you not gotten it? Have I not always supported it? We can go back through the votes and see through the minutes.”

The director replied back, “You have voted for them, yes.”

Patton added, “And most of the time I made the motion to do it, because I have always been behind EMA, always, now and forever.”

In response to Hobbs’ suggestion that Patton was going behind their backs, she said, “I have firefighters and EMTs who are residents of my district who I can talk to any time. All I ask people when I go to these stations is what they need.”

Patton added, “I’m offended by your presentation Chief Hobbs.”

Hobbs replied, “You can be offended. I’ve been offended for 25 years.”

Accusations of discrimination

Cooper said that the agency’s problem right now is with AEMTs and paramedics. That’s where the positions are being lost. He said to extend this pay increase to any other positions outside of those two job descriptions would be discrimination unless every personnel gets a similar pay bump.

Right now, according to Cooper, the agency’s issue comes from a hiring standpoint, but he warned the committee that “the longer it goes, it will change from a hiring issue to a retention issue.”

Commissioner Lauren Breeze said, “The intent tonight was to figure out how to help WEMA stop the bleeding. Where we are stuck is that we have to have recurring revenue. All we have in our pocket at this time is a stop-gap solution. I want to respect what you (Cooper) want to do. But I also want to make sure that residents in my district get ambulance service.”

When the agency presented the committee with a pay study it had conducted earlier independently, it informed committee members that it would cost $4.2 million to get in line with other counties.

The budget adjustment recently recommended by the committee was for significantly less, about $500,000 to fund overtime requests.


Ultimately, the committee remains where it was upon entering the meeting. Until the results of the pay study comes back and can be applied to every department, no real moves can be made in any one direction.

Wilson County Human Resources Director Quiana Scruggs reminded everyone during the meeting that although the pay plan proposal had an original deadline of Jan. 15 that that estimate was made in September. However, the window to begin the study didn’t open until the county commission formally approved the budget item transfer to fund it at the October meeting.

“We owe Burris, Thompson and Associates, (the hired firm) that six-week timeframe,” Scruggs told the committee.

The pay study is costing the county $18,000. It was approved by the county commission during a regular-scheduled October meeting.

Patton said, “With the dire situation we are in, do we have to wait for (the pay study) to compile the information from all the departments?”

County Mayor Randall Hutto replied, “If we’re going to eat bologna, we are all going to eat bologna. If we are going to eat steak, we’re all going to eat steak.”

Commissioner Justin Smith has been vocal about getting the first responders a pay raise, but he said any quick fix would be a band-aid.

“We paid for this study to get a professional opinion,” Smith said. “We want to make sure this is done correctly and efficiently.”

Smith assured the agency director and his administrators present, “Help is on the way.”

Vice president of the local firefighters’ union, Colton Young, told the committee that he heard a quote from one county official saying some of the personnel are chasing the dollar.

“Chasing the dollar is not what people in this field are doing,” Young said. “If you give this field a boost, and show them their loyalty, they will not go. As a representative of over 50 personnel, I can confirm that. They are looking at you to make a job that pays what they need to live here and to help them buy groceries.

Only moments to get out

An already blustery weekend took a swan dive into chaos for a Mt. Juliet family late Saturday night when a fire broke out in their home. Within seconds, the house was lost to the inferno.

Now that family, the Dixons, faces a tough task of picking up the pieces. Thanks to all the support, Steven Dixon thinks they’re going to be alright after all, something he could not imagine only 72 hours before as he watched his home disappear into the night.

“The generosity of this community has been amazing,” said Dixon. “I have never experienced anything like this. I have heard about it, but to actually be the ones who are the recipients of this generosity, love and prayer and the community coming together, I am amazed.

“My story just goes to show that there are good people out there. If we pull together and help each other out, bad things can become good things.”

Saturday night was not unlike most Saturday nights as Dixon and his wife, Kelly Jo, prepped for bed. He was coming in from the front porch when he first noticed the smoke. Kelly Jo was in the living room, and a third resident of the home, a roommate named Carlos, was upstairs.

He immediately began inspecting the house for the source of smoke. Seeking out the presumed fire, he opened a doorway at the end of the hall. Inside he saw what he could only describe as a “volcano.”

“I could see a hole in the floor and a white flame,” Dixon said. “All of a sudden, I was hit by a blast.”

Flames from the room burned his face after he opened the door, but Dixon said in retrospect that it was minor compared to what could have been, thanks to a gift from a friendly veteran.

While Dixon didn’t have time to save anything from his home, he had on the veteran’s old flight jacket when the fire started.

“I was wearing it that night,” Dixon said. “I think when I opened this door, if I didn’t have this on, I might have gone up in flames.”

A panicked scramble out of the home ensued.

“It’s not like we thought, ‘Oh well, let’s grab this or this,’ ” Dixon said. “We only got out with what we had on.”

The Dixons watched as Wilson County Emergency Management Agency firefighters worked diligently to douse the flames, fully aware that it would be a total loss.

“Everything was chaos,” Dixon said. “We didn’t know what we were going to do, other than sit there with all the dogs with a rope from the fire department ... wife out in slippers. I’m in a t-shirt.

“We felt so helpless.”

According to, temperatures in Mt. Juliet reached as low as the teens that night. Dixon mentioned that he sustained mild hypothermia, in addition to signs of smoke inhalation and minor burns to the face.

“Fire department and paramedics suggested I go to the hospital, but I couldn’t leave my family behind here in the rain,” Dixon said.

That family includes the dog owners’ 6 rescues.

On Tuesday, Dixon and his wife were celebrating. Almost 72 hours after the fire began that took their home, the entire cast was finally reunited. Amid the mayhem of that night, one of the dogs, a German Shepherd named Athena, had made it out of the house unharmed but ran off.

Unable to begin processing the road ahead until they were all together again, Dixon spent the last three days trying to corral the lost dog.

“My wife has cried every night ... no sleep,” Dixon said. “She’s been so worried about that pup.”

Dixon did some research over the following days about how animals respond after a traumatic experience. He read that standoffishness can be a fight or flight response. He enlisted Wilson County Animal Control to help contain the dog, and it provided some equipment. That was on the third day. Whatever jitters were afflicting the animal seemed to have eased by that time, and Dixon said that they were able to get Athena back without having to use the trap.

It turned out that Athena had been staying on the porch of a neighbor’s unoccupied home.

In addition to helping look for the lost dog, neighbors, local churches and just individuals had been chipping in to offer support. As of Wednesday, a GoFundMe page had raised more than $10,000.

Dixon said that you don’t realize all the little things you have until you literally lose it all, so he’s grateful for the clothes and common household items that have been donated.

“I’ve had people I don’t even know come to offer help,” Dixon said.

Dixon owns Tidy Dog Pet Supply and Salon in Donelson. Like a lot of small businesses, his salon had been struggling during the pandemic.

“It’s been tough trying to keep it going,” Dixon said.

Now that many expenses await on the horizon, he knows that he has to keep what revenue coming in that he can. Thanks to the help that he’s received, he’s confident he can keep focusing on the business, where he is currently the only groomer.

One question about their future has already been answered.

“We want to rebuild on the property ... we do,” Dixon said. “We love the community, especially after this. I mean, look at the neighbors we have. When they found out what happened, they all pulled together like a big family.”

REI Co-op to build distribution center in Lebanon

It was announced on Wednesday morning that REI Co-op plans to build a 400,000-square-foot distribution center on 41 acres of land in Lebanon, which is expected to result in 280 jobs.

“We’re super excited about this facility because we’re currently a 20-million-member co-op,” REI vice president of supply chain Bill Best said. “We aspire to be a 50-million-member co-op by 2030. We’re growing. Some of the excitement is known on what the impact will be.

“Tennessee is a beautiful state. We’re super excited.”

It will be the fourth distribution center for REI, along with centers in Bedford, Pennsylvania; Goodyear, Arizona; and Sumner, Washington.

The Lebanon distribution facility is expected to be operational by the fall of 2023, and it is being built to provide for and replenish 70 stores on the East Coast, in the Midwest and in the South and to fulfill online purchases as well.

REI indicated that it selected Lebanon after looking at several other locations in the South and considering key factors that included, but were not limited to, general-population statistics, job-market potential, construction readiness, existing regional environmental commitments, and cost to build.

“You have a very strong labor market,” Best said of Tennessee. “While we’re bringing a number of jobs to the market, we know there’s talent in the market to serve our members.

“Where it sits on the map … we’re growing east of the Mississippi. This will be our second distribution center east of the Mississippi. This will help with growing us that way. There’s access to north/south highway and east/west highways.”

The most recent distribution center to open was the Arizona facility in 2016.

“On behalf of Wilson County, I want to welcome REI Co-op to our community,” Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto said in a press release. “This decision was made possible because of the partnership formed with REI and members of our economic development team, especially those of the Wilson County Commission. We look forward to continuing our relationship and of being part of REI’s newest technology-driven, omni-channel operation center. Their commitment to sustainability, to their people and the commitment to technology blends well with the goals and plans of our county. We look forward to further partnering with REI though their community outreach, events and stewardship programs.”

REI — which is based in Seattle, Washington — was established in 1938 and has 174 stores across 41 states and the District of Columbia.

REI arrived in Tennessee when the Brentwood store opened in 1999, and it currently has more than 267,000 lifetime members in Tennessee. The other retail locations in-state include Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis and Pigeon Forge, with REI currently employing more than 300 individuals in Tennessee.

“REI is a respected brand that has been trusted by outdoor enthusiasts for over 80 years, and I’m proud the company has chosen Tennessee for its newest distribution center,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said in a press release. “Our state’s central location and unmatched quality of life make it the ideal destination for a company so committed to outdoor recreation, and I thank REI for its commitment and job creation in Lebanon.”

Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bob Rolfe added, “With more than 223,000 Tennesseans employed across nearly 14,000 distribution and logistics establishments, REI will be contributing to one of our state’s most robust industries. We are proud to welcome REI to Tennessee and appreciate their team for creating nearly 300 new jobs in Wilson County.”

Construction began on the facility in late December.

Al. Neyer, which is based in Nashville, is the architect and general contractor for the project.

According to Al. Neyer Vice President of Design-Build Justin Hartung, plans are to have enough of the construction completed in order to allow REI to install some equipment by October, though some things will still be under construction at that time.

The facility will be located at 1400 Murfreesboro Road, one mile from Interstate-40 and at the southwest intersection of Stumpy Lane and Murfreesboro Road. That is across from Southside Elementary School, which is located at the northwest intersection of Stumpy Lane and Murfreesboro Road.

“We were very attentive to any impact of traffic flow,” Best said. “The city is attentive to that as well. There will be no truck traffic on Stumpy Lane. Truck access will only be off of Murfreesboro Road, farther down from the school. There will only be access for our employees.

“We’ll have the opportunity to design shifts around school timing to help parents who have kids in schools, to be able to align with the communities.”

Hartung added, “We wanted to stay clear as much as possible with interfering with any school traffic coming in. We’ll coordinate and schedule around those times just to help to make sure we’re not causing any interference there. We’ve set all our construction traffic to come in on the south side of Murfreesboro Road.”

Best expects that the vast majority of the 280 hires to be in place when the center opens.

“We’ll open closer to 280 than not,” Best said. “Naturally, you’re going to ramp up to that. We’ll begin some of our early hiring as early as this year and then really start ramping that hiring in 2023.

“The folks we want to start bringing in are the folks who will help us lead this facility so that they will take ownership of the facility. We want them to be as proud of the product as we are to be in Lebanon.”

State Rep. Clark Boyd added, “I am very excited to see a company like REI choosing to do business in Lebanon. We have worked hard to create a business-friendly environment in Wilson County and across Tennessee, and this announcement is yet another example of those successful efforts. I look forward to this new distribution center opening in Lebanon and want to thank all of those who helped make it possible.”

Best’s goal is for REI to serve as more than just a distribution center.

“We want to be a citizen and resident of the community, not a tenant,” Best said. “We’re going to make efforts to be involved in that way.”

Mt. Juliet revises liquor store laws

The Mt. Juliet Board of Commissioners revised its liquor-store laws at their meeting on Monday night.

The board voted unanimously to abolish bi-annual renewals for liquor stores and to require each liquor-store owner to have one retail liquor license for each 8,000 retailers.

The city commission approved these revisions at its previous meeting on Dec. 13.

The city previously required liquor-store owners seek a new certificate of compliance every two months from the day a certificate is issued and have them provide no more than three retail liquor licenses.

The city commission also eliminated residency requirements for liquor stores.

Mt. Juliet formerly required liquor-store owners to either be Mt. Juliet residents over the past two years or be citizens of Wilson County over the last five years.

The city’s residency requirements also formerly applied to corporate-owned and partnership-owned liquor stores in which each of the stockholders or partners were obligated to meet those requirements.

Last December, Mt. Juliet City Attorney Gino Marchetti said that residency requirements and bi-annual renewals for liquor stores do not apply to state law.

In other business, the city commission also approved a rezoning of the dog cottages at Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary.

Old Friends’ 10 perpetual dog care cottages will be rezoned to a commercial retail center.

The Mt. Juliet Planning Commission forwarded a positive recommendation on the rezoning to the city commission last November.

The cottages will be built west of its new facility on Nonaville Road at 3.8 acres.

The dog care cottages’ design features facades consisting of fiber cement siding and brick.

Old Friends will apply to the city’s commercial design standards and animal-care requirements for the cottages.

The non-profit will restrict the use of exercise yards from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and have the design of animal-care facilities provide for the off-street pickup and drop-off of dogs.

Zina Goodwin, co-founder of Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary, commented that they are providing a home-like environment for their dogs with the new cottages, at last November’s Planning Commission meeting.

“We will try to put the dogs with the other dogs that came either from the same home or have similar dispositions so they could all enjoy living in a cozy environment together,” said Goodwin.

The city commission also awarded codes enforcement official Marty Potts as the top employee of 2021.

Potts has worked for the city of Mt. Juliet for more than 17 years.

Mt. Juliet City Director Kenny Martin said that while Potts’ wife Tonya was ill with COVID-19 last October, he would visit her every day at Select Specialty Hospital in Nashville and would still maintain his working duties for Mt. Juliet.

“We’ve been trying to tell him, ‘You go take care of her … don’t worry about this place,’ but he has not missed a beat when it comes to work as well,” said Martin.

Potts added, “The last three months have been tough but being able to come to work and go out there is a real blessing.”

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