Several Butler County agencies vying for $70M in first responder grants

Butler County first responder agencies have applied for a slice of $70 million in state American Rescue Plan Act dollars to hire and retain first responders and pay for mental health wellness. FILE

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Butler County first responder agencies have applied for a slice of $70 million in state American Rescue Plan Act dollars to hire and retain first responders and pay for mental health wellness. FILE

Many Butler County police and fire departments and the sheriff are applying for new state grants to recruit, retain and otherwise support responders during a time when staffing is reaching critical stages.

The Ohio Emergency Management Agency is disbursing $70 million worth of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds for the new Ohio First Responder Recruitment, Retention, and Resilience Program.

“Ohio first responders stand ready to protect, defend, and provide life-saving services to the citizens of Ohio every day of the year, often putting themselves at risk both physically and mentally,” Governor Mike DeWine said about the opportunity. “With these funds, my goal is to help local agencies keep first responders on the job and attract more qualified Ohioans to seek careers in public safety professions.”

Even prior to the pandemic first responder agencies were having a hard time filling vacancies because people just aren’t going into those professions anymore. The situation was exacerbated by the pandemic when workers in nearly every sector of the workforce starting quitting their jobs in droves.

West Chester Twp. Police Capt. Seth Hagaman, who is the Support Bureau commander, has applied for just over $6 million to hire a total of 22 fulltime equivalent positions for police, fire or dispatch. It also provides for a one-time, 10% retention bonus over two years, money for mental health wellness and advertising to recruit new people.

“On the law enforcement side, since 2020 we’ve had 14 people leave law enforcement altogether, they resigned and no longer are working in law enforcement anywhere which is very consistent with the national trend,” Hagaman said. “Between the stress of COVID, greater scrutiny of police officers, people have taken that time to make career changes so that’s something we’re constantly dealing with.”

If they are successful, Hagaman said they will spend $3.7 million hiring new staff, $2.1 million on retention bonuses and $179,000 will go to provide a mandatory mental health wellness check-in for first responders and $50,000 for advertising to recruit new people.

“Just a once a year opportunity for them to touch base, see what resources are there, to explore issues they might have and then be able to provide up to three follow-on visits if needed. Just something to get our people in front of a mental health clinician once a year,” Hagaman said. “Just to check in, not something that would be used for discipline or something we would know the content of but something to check on the wellbeing of our folks.”

Fire department staffing struggles

On the fire department side, Assistant Fire Chief Randy Hanifen said they have four full-time vacancies and the part-time roster is a “shell of what it was” and they have only about 40% of their allotment. Many fire departments have been moving to all fulltime because part-timers have been so scarce, which further exacerbates the situation. Plus retirements are coming up. He said the vocational schools are “pushing them out as fast as they can” but it has been a perfect storm of circumstances.

Liberty Twp. is following the trend, applying for $1.45 million to convert three part-time firefighter/EMTs to fulltime and to fund a fire prevention specialist position. Fire Chief Ethan Klussman also bemoaned the part-time situation that’s why they are beefing up their full-time roster.

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“It’s very competitive out there and our part-time pool we turn over, a part-timer averages about 10 months with the department,” Klussman said. “By the time we hire them, train them and somebody else is hiring fulltime we lose them in an average of about 10 months.”

Middletown Assistant Fire Chief Tom Snively said they have a little different issue they are trying to solve using the retention portion of the grant. They applied for $686,999 to give all of their uniformed staff 10% bonuses split over two years because their people are paid “significantly lower” than many other departments countywide.

“It’s more of not necessarily recruiting people, we’ll get people to apply but once they’re here we can’t keep them because we’re not competitive as far as compensation goes,” Snively said. “So we’re hoping that bonus is a way for us to possibly bridge the gap until we can address the hourly wage.”

Police have problems, too

The police department in the county’s second largest city did not apply for the funding. Police Chief Dave Birk said they already have an open Community Oriented Policing Services grant for $250,000 they haven’t been able to utilize to hire more officers.

“We’ve just been unable to fill those with COVID and everything, so we said why would someone give us another position when we can’t fill these positions already,” Birk said.

Fairfield has applied for $1.3 million for both fire and police. City Manager Scott Timmer said if they win the money it will help them in their goal to switch to a full fulltime fire department and they need another dispatcher.

The Butler County Sheriff runs the biggest first responder agency in the county and they are only asking for about $153,000 “we’re not trying to be hogs,” Chief Deputy Anthony Dwyer said. He said if they get it they will use it for bonuses for paramedics and EMTs at the jail and dispatchers.

“Maybe by filing a lower amount we’ll get kind of what we’re asking for,” he said.

Fairfield Twp. applied for money for both departments too, around $180,000 for fire to pay for retention incentives and for a peer support program. Police Capt. Doug Lanier said they applied for about $350,000 for retention incentives and the wellness component.

“A lot of departments now are giving bonuses, both public and private sector are giving bonuses now to try to lure more people in,” Lanier said. “But we are not just focused on trying to get people in the door we want to make sure we reward the dedication for people that work with us now.”

Dollar amounts were not available for the city of Hamilton but Executive Director for Public Safety Scott Scrimizzi said they are applying for the funding.

“We will be requesting funding for each of the approved categories,” Scrimizzi said. “We are constantly discussing recruitment and retention along with wellness programs for our first responders and any additional funding we receive would be greatly appreciated.”

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