Fairfield could battle years-long firefighter staffing woes with new staffing grant

The Fairfield Fire Department has dealt with staffing issues since at least 2015 as more than 100 part-time firefighters have left for full-time jobs elsewhere.

The department may be able to help address the issue with a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant. The grant could help fund the nine new full-time positions department officials have wanted to add since 2019.

City Council rejected a SAFER grant in 2019, but this round has new rules, including that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will pay 100 percent of the staffing cost over the three-year grant period. The city would pay for the positions once the grant ends. Previously, fire departments were responsible for part of the staffing costs during that three-year period.

Because the firefighter union negotiations have gone to an arbitrator, Deputy Fire Chief Tom Wagner said the department will need to “overestimate” the staffing cost for new firefighters, but he expects that cost to be revised “when the actual number comes in.”

The department is planning to request nearly $3.5 million when it applies for the grant, which has a deadline of March 12. The cost to staff a first-year firefighter/EMT is estimated at $128,497 per position for each of the three years, including salary, equipment and benefits.

The city is considering a new fire levy in 2021, fire administrators told City Council in September. Department officials then told City Council they needed to add nine new positions to help maintain adequate levels of staffing at its three stations, but the current fire levy won’t be able to support those positions. A decision on the levy hasn’t been made.

The department relies heavily on part-time firefighters, but it faces issues keeping 48 part-time spots filled with experienced firefighters. More than 100 part-timers have left since 2015, as high turnover is common in part-time firefighters.

Eight of the newest part-time firefighters hired have less than a month of experience, and four just finished emergency medical technician school and are waiting to be certified with the national EMT registry.

As of now, only 40 of those 48 part-time jobs are filled.

Part-time firefighters typically stay about 16 months before they leave for a full-time position, and more than a dozen regional departments are looking to fill open full-time jobs, said Fairfield Deputy Fire Chief Randy McCreadie.

“There was a time the schools would wait on us to hire,” he said. “Now we’re waiting on the schools to get people out to us. That’s how robust the firefighter market is today for part-timers.”

More part-time firefighters will be hired away from Fairfield within the next two months, McCreadie said. There are 14 departments in Butler, Clermont, Hamilton, Montgomery and Warren counties hiring for career positions, and McCreadie said Middletown will be hiring three of Fairfield’s part-time firefighters.

The city’s staffing goal is to have 18 firefighters to cover shifts at its three stations. McCreadie said 12 of those spots are “critical” positions for full-time staff to fill because they require certifications a part-time firefighter does not possess. There are 30 full-time frontline firefighters.

“That takes time, experience, education, and training to function, and these are traits that these part-timer firefighter/EMTs just are not able to offer either because they either don’t stay long enough ... or they get their (paramedic) card and we don’t have time to turn them into medics so they leave.”

“The intent here is to not to get rid of part-timers,” said McCreadie, calling them “a valuable piece of our operations.” “We’re just trying to reduce the dependencies on these folks to fill critical positions.”

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