Several fire departments in Butler County have recently beefed up their full-time staffs to offset a shortage in available part-time firefighter/medics.
Oxford, Ross and West Chester townships are all adding more full-time people this year because the dearth of part-timers is negatively impacting operations. Liberty Twp. trustees last week approved a three percent pay hike for their 52 part-timers to stay competitive in a tight market.
The trustees in West Chester Twp. approved hiring six new full-time firefighter/medics — and reduced the number of approved part-time slots from 73 to 47 — at a cost saving of $36,000, when all costs associated with part-time help are factored into the equation. Fire Chief Rick Prinz said the move was mandatory in the current environment.
“It’s status quo as far as our part-time problem, nothing has changed,” Prinz said. “We are still experiencing a dramatic decrease of the available part-time firefighter/EMT and or paramedic candidates … The reliability of being able to hire a part-time person and then being able to retain them is not a sustainable model anymore.”
Prinz said jurisdictions are bearing the cost of outfitting the new hires with gear and training them only to have them leave in a year or two to take a full-time job somewhere else.
Prinz said it costs $97,969 to hire a full-time person — gear, training, salary and benefits — and there were total costs of $80,790 last year for the 15 people who resigned. The turnover rate from 2014-16 was 74 percent.
Fire departments all over are experiencing the shortage, and Prinz said they are using different tactics to cope.West Chester has instituted holiday and longevity pay programs as an incentive to get part-timers to stay, and other departments are paying benefits to part-time firefighter/medics.
Facing the same predicament, Ross Twp. in January hired three full-time firefighter/medics, the first full-time fire staff other than Fire Chief Steve Miller ever. He said it will cost about $40,000 more per person to pay for full-time employees.
The city of Oxford is in the process of hiring three more full-time firefighter/EMTs, which will bring their complement of full-timers — the chief excluded — up to nine. Fire Chief John Detherage said the department budgeted $350,000 extra for personnel costs this year.
Fairfield Twp. Fire Chief Tim Thomas said he still needs trustee approval, but he has asked for six full-time firefighter/medics at a cost of about $600,000. There are currently three full-time people, including Thomas, and 70 part-timers on staff.
Liberty Twp.’s new fire chief, Ethan Klussman, said he hasn’t been in the department long enough to suggest anything other than handing out raises for part-timers, but that is subject to change. He said eight part-time people have resigned in the six months he has been at the helm.
“We’ll watch, see how this works. The discussion is always there, where is that fine line in the balance of not having enough part-timers to fill the need versus the overtime costs it takes to make sure we’re maintaining an efficient service …,” Klussman said. “Moving forward, as we start to watch where our overtime is being spent and where our part-time numbers are, will give me a good indication by the end of the year of what’s our next step.”
Thomas said a better economy with more good paying jobs — starting pay for full-time in his department is $50,000 — has something to do with the fire service shortage.
“The job market we’re currently in, there’s a lot of good paying jobs out there, that you don’t necessarily even need training to get,” Thomas said. “When you start looking at the training that’s required to become an entry level firefighter, a lot of people don’t want to spend the money to go to those classes when they can go to the Amazon warehouse and get a job tomorrow.”
Detherage said changes within the regional fire service are also having an impact on the part-time picture.
“There are a lot of fire departments hiring because over the past couple years Cincinnati has put on a bunch, Hamilton’s hired, Middletown’s hired, I think Columbus has hired, the bigger places have all been hiring people, due to a lot of retirements,” Detherage said.
Fairfield is the only large city to still use part-timers — Hamilton, Middletown and Monroe all have career fire departments — and Fire Chief Don Bennett agreed there are a number of factors at work, but the biggest problem is the “revolving door” effect.
“That’s a lot of man hours for a variety of individuals to mentor that individual, and they get them up and running and they decide to leave,” Bennett said. “It’s not what they want, not what they like, not what they thought it was going to be or they get a full-time job employment.”
He said Fairfield recently gave a test for full-time positions — the city received an $800,000-plus Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant that’s allowing them to hire new full-timers. Only 24 people signed up — in times past 100-plus people would be in line — and only 16 people then actually showed up.
Evan Seeley, who is a 28-year-old part-timer for Ross Twp. — he also has a full-time job with Fort Mitchell, Ky. — said he and his friends like fire service because there is something new happening every day and there is a sense of camaraderie you might not find in other lines of work. But he can see why other young people might not want to pursue it.
“I know a lot of people see this as kind of a blue collar job,” Seeley said. “So maybe a lot of people don’t see too much money in it.”
Out in the field the chiefs are all experiencing shortages, but Jeff Travers, director of public safety programs at Butler Tech, said the school’s classes have all been full.
“Interest is way up…,” Travers said. “It sort of blows your mind. There is a shortage but we’re not seeing the shortage here on the educational side. The guys that are seeing the shortage are the fire chiefs, they’ll post a position and get nowhere near the qualified candidates that they want to see.”
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