Area departments have spent $5.6M hiring new firefighters. Here’s how it happened.

With the help of almost $5.6 million in federal grants, fire departments in most of Butler County’s largest jurisdictions have been able to retain and increase their life-saving staffs.

Butler County fire departments have added 40 firefighters using grant funds provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency since 2006. Another nine full-time firefighters and $1.2 million might be coming to the county if Liberty Twp. is successful in its bid for the funding.

The township is hoping to get a little closer to an all full-time, career department. Trustee Tom Farrell said the federal grant would pay 75 percent of the salary and benefits for the new firefighters for two years, and the grant drops down to 35 percent in the final year. He said an entry-level full-time firefighter makes roughly $56,000, plus about $20,000 in benefits.

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“Ultimately we would love to have a completely full-time fire department,” Farrell said. “But it just is cost prohibitive. So finding that mix that is fiscally responsible, provides the best service for our residents, always a constant battle.”

The first Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grants (SAFER) grant awards were issued in 2005. The fund was created to increase or maintain the number of “front line” firefighters and to enhance the local fire departments’ abilities to comply with staffing, response and operational standards.

West Chester Twp. was the first in Butler County to take advantage of the federal money, winning $568,479 to hire six firefighters in 2006. It hasn’t applied since then but added another six people last year in order to combat the growing problem of the reduced number of available part-timers.

At the same time, the township added six new full-time firefighter/medics, it reduced the number of approved part-time slots from 73 to 47, saving $36,000. Fire Chief Rick Prinz said he would love to have a fully full-time fire department, but can’t, grant money or not.

“We know the burden to do so is beyond our means at this point,” Prinz said.

Depending on various staffing factors, in West Chester it could take as many as 24 additional people — eight per shift — at a starting cost of $1.35 million plus another $1 million — it costs $97,969 to hire a full-time person — for all the associated benefits such as health insurance, pension, vacation and other perks. In year six the costs would jump to $3.1 million with benefits.

Middletown received the largest SAFER grant with $1.8 million to hire 12 firefighters in 2017. Officials there say the grant runs out this year, and they have the funds to sustain the positions. Unlike the grant Liberty is competing for, Middletown’s grant was strictly to retain current staff.

The grant has changed through the years. Fairfield Twp. Fire Chief Tim Thompson said the grants used to cover five years, starting at 90 percent and then stepping down as the jurisdictions took on more of the cost. He said jurisdictions had to promise to keep the personnel they hired with the money after the grant ended.

During the Great Recession, he said, the focus shifted from creating more career positions to keeping those already in place.

“Back when the market crashed back in 2008, 2009 and ‘10, when everything really got to be a problem, they changed that grant due to the economic situation and they allowed that grant to fund the recall of laid off people,” Thompson said. “That’s where the bulk of the SAFER grants went to, was to the bigger cities where they were cutting firefighters.”

His township is one of the few local jurisdictions to have their application rejected. The letter indicated FEMA received more than 1,300 applications requesting in excess of $1 billion. There are 300 SAFER grants totalling $350 million available in the current grant cycle.

Oxford is the only jurisdiction in the county that has deliberately not sought the funding. Fire Chief John Detherage said the terms of the grant don’t fit the city’s needs.

“We have not applied for the SAFER Grant and the major reason is the limited duration,” Detherage said. “If the program provided a longer-term funding stream covering a high percentage of the needed funds for the employee it would be much more appealing to us.”

MORE: Liberty Twp. seeks $1 million grant in quest for full-time fire department 

One of the stated goals of the SAFER is to help departments reach optimum response time standards.

Hamilton was successful in obtaining a $1.1 million grant in 2010, and it hired seven people. Officials applied once more since then but were rejected. Increasing staff to reduce response times is not likely on the horizon, according to Fire Chief Mark Mercer.

“As the grant package expired, Hamilton’s general fund could not support the staffing due to a combination of cuts in local government funding from the state and the impact of decreasing general fund revenue,” Mercer said.

“Even though our demand for service has continually increased, competing pressures for services and funding was a driver in our decision to restructure our response model and provide services based on the actual sustainable budget.”

Monroe’s $1 million grant for seven firefighters has also expired and Fire Chief John Centers said the budget can sustain the positions. Centers said a full-timer-only department is a good investment, and the department is ensured to have a loyal, well-trained staff that knows the community.

“Eventually you start looking at the amount of money you’re spending on turnout gear and training and other equipment to have people stay maybe a year, in some cases less, all that money is essentially gone,” he said. “So your return on investment is zero.”

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