More firefighters coming to Fairfield to help staffing woes

Ten of the 12 apartment units were occupied in the early morning hours of Aug. 25, 2020, when emergency crews were dispatched to 1605 W. Augusta Boulevard in Fairfield. No one was injured in the fire. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF
Ten of the 12 apartment units were occupied in the early morning hours of Aug. 25, 2020, when emergency crews were dispatched to 1605 W. Augusta Boulevard in Fairfield. No one was injured in the fire. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Chief: ‘I cannot, any longer, work our firefighter/paramedics like livestock.’

The Fairfield Fire Department on May 25 can make full-time offers to three potential firefighter/paramedic candidates.

It’s a prelude to a possible fire levy coming in as early as 2022, though city leaders cannot say yet if it would be a renewal or replacement of, or some other change to, the 2.5-mill levy passed by voters in 2016, or a new to-be-determined levy.

More revenues are needed, or the department will need supplemental funding from the city’s general fund beginning as early as 2023.

The three anticipated hires will be the first steps in hiring more full-time firefighters and paramedics, and moving away from a staffing model that relies heavily on part-time employees, said Fire Chief Don Bennett, who is also serving as the city’s acting city manager. Part-time firefighters make up 47.1% of the daily staff, and the average years of experience had dropped in the past several years.

“One of the things we have to look at is the wear and tear on our people,” said Bennett. “I cannot, any longer, work our firefighter/paramedics like livestock. I cannot work them to the point of fatigue, and I cannot work them to the point where their home life and family would be in jeopardy. It is a balance between career and home life.”

Thousands of overtime hours have been worked in the first four-plus months of 2021, and the city’s on pace to spend more than $1.3 million just in overtime “if we do not make some amendment to our staffing,” Bennett said. Much of that overtime is used by the part-time staff who are called in because no one is available to fill the slot, and the cycle will restart next year, “but it will be worse,” the chief said.

The fire department was approved in September to increase daily staffing levels at its three fire stations from 14 to 17 total firefighters. This allowed the city to staff Engine 33, and before that, the fire engine was out of service 83% of the time, said Bennett.

Keeping part-time staff is difficult, according to the fire department’s executive staff.

In September 2015, the average experience level for a part-time firefighter in Fairfield was four years. In September 2020, it was less than a year.

Since Jan. 1, 2019, the city fire department has had to hire 63 part-time firefighters/EMTs. Their average experience of those firefighters is 5.8 months, and the average age is 20.7.

“Most of the people we are getting are 18-year-olds right out of the high school program,” said Deputy Fire Chief Randy McCreadie. “They’re not bad people, that’s just the people we are getting. They have no experience to help us right away.”

Of those 63 hires, only 30 are still on the force. The 33 who left either left for a full-time firefighting job with a different department or a different career.

And other departments are desperate to fill open positions.

Five of those 63 part-timers were hired in this current second quarter of 2021, and four remain with Fairfield. However, McCreadie said two of those four might leave either before or right after they start this week.

“The odds of them staying for several months on end is pretty slim because, as a matter of fact, I know two of them (that we just hired) were at Springdale’s physical ability test this past weekend,” said McCreadie.

Bennett said four others have applied to other departments.

City Council on Monday gave the fire department the OK to move forward with the process, but they cannot make any offers until the council authorizes it. That authorization cannot happen, both because of procedure and legal reasons, until the May 24 meeting. Bennett said offers would then be made the next day.

The chief said it would not make significant improvements, but it will be a sign of improvements soon.

The push to have more full-time firefighters is because of a staffing problem plaguing the Fairfield Fire Department for the past several years. It’s a similar problem that’s been at other fire departments, as well, but others have moved further away from relying on part-time firefighters.

Fairfield, which was one of the first departments to implement part-timers in 1985, is one of the few departments still relying on that staffing model.

Nearly half of Fairfield’s on-duty fire department staff are part-time. Other departments, like Springdale, Blue Ash, and West Chester Twp., have 20% or less of its on-duty staffed by part-timers. The department’s executive staff wants to convert some of those on-duty part-time slots to full-time slots.

Fairfield wouldn’t reduce its number of part-time firefighters, which is approved to be at 48 (40 slots are currently employed), but it would reduce the department’s dependency for that staff to work overtime, which officials say puts undue stress on the firefighters, and their families, Bennett said.

The city applied for a Staffing For Adequate Fire And Emergency Response (SAFER) grant this year, but Bennett says it’s a 50/50 chance they’ll be awarded the nearly $3.5 million federal grant to pay for nine full-time firefighters. This grant would pay 100% of the cost for a three-year period, though past grants partially paid for them.

Bennett said historically, departments that turn down SAFER grants don’t get awarded on the next grant request. The city turned down a SAFER grant in 2019 that would mostly have paid for six firefighters.