West Chester closer to having a full-time fire department

Credit: Submitted

Credit: Submitted

West Chester Twp. has almost reached its goal of having a full-time fire department, to alleviate the regional shortage of part-timers, that exacerbates overtime with 10 new hires over the next couple weeks.

The trustees approved hiring five new firefighter/medics: Benjamin Toney, Chad Comarata, Joseph Englebert, Joshua Ulrey and Joshua Watts this week at annual salaries of $64,757 and another five will be hired at the next meeting. Fire Chief Rick Prinz told the Journal-News the men who joined the department this week all worked part-time for his department before their promotions and are actually filling vacancies.

Trustee Mark Welch as he always does thanked the new firefighters and two policemen especially for choosing to stay with the township as they advance in their careers.

“You guys are doing this because of a calling, right, you didn’t wake up one day and decide you wanted be a fireman or police officer, if you did it was probably when you were like 4-years-old, and you decided this is what I want to do Daddy,” Welch said. “We’re grateful for that.”

The five Prinz will ask the trustees to approve on March 14 are part of the nine positions that have been approved to give him a full-time department. He is allowed 60 full-time career firefighters and 18 lieutenants and 20 part-timers. He will be four full-time firefighters away from a complete full-time department and currently has 10 part-time firefighters.

He said he doesn’t remember hiring this many people at once — except maybe when they opened Station 4 — and it wouldn’t have been possible had they not changed their recruiting strategy.

“We really, really struggled, we went through several renditions of a process before we finally got it right,” Prinz said. “Sometime last summer we did a process where we had not only a lateral hiring incentive but there was also a $3,000 signing bonus, that yielded one person.”

He said they “regrouped” and now they will hire new recruits with only emergency medical technician experience and send them to paramedic school at the township’s expense, “that opened the flood gates, I think we had 200 applicants.”

The largest increase in the township’s budget this year is for the fire department, with a 12% bump from $17.7 million last year to $19.8 million. Prinz told the trustees during a recent budget presentation they “topped” $1.4 million in overtime due to staffing issues last year.

Welch told the Journal-News that is why it is crucial to have a full-time department.

“We’ve had a steadily increasing overtime expense for the fire department and it’s kind of directly proportional to the reduction in part-time firefighters we’ve been able to find,” Welch said. “So these overtime hours will be significantly curtailed by bringing on full-time firefighters.”

Part of the part-time firefighter shortage has been the nagging problem that young people were just not going into the fire or police business. Prinz said in the past year there has been a “positive uptick” in the number of young people choosing fire fighting as a career. The problem is the high demand in this region means they going right into full-time career paths not the typical part-time route to gain experience.

The chief said the fire department’s pay is in the top third for the region and in his 33 years he has been with West Chester “we’ve had very little career turnover” with only about three full-time firefighter/medics quitting to go to another department. But he predicts that could change, “I can see with this generation that hopping will occur.”

“For a multitude of reasons, whether it’s better pay, less pay but a smaller less busy department, some will jump because it is a busier department, they want to be in a bigger department, or maybe they want to move someplace else or another department may offer a fringe benefit that we may not necessarily have,” Prinz said. “Because there is such a demand it’s very easy to be choosy in where you want to go.”

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