Wanted in Ohio: More Part-time Firefighters/Medics

The changing nature of firefighting is challenging many local fire departments to deal with replenishing staffing, a task that often saps time and money.

Fire chiefs in Butler County say they are losing part-time firefighters to bigger cities that may have cut back staffing due to budgetary restraints, but still offer more job opportunity than smaller communities. In addition, there’s been an increase in not only the amount of departments utilizing a part-time staff, but the amount of part-timer positions required for fire coverage.

Fairfield Twp. Fire Chief Timothy Thomas said the decreased availability in full-time positions and the increase in part-time positions makes it challenging to fill staffing rosters because many firefighters are now working multiple part-time jobs in order to make a living.

“There’s not a lot of full-time jobs out there so they’ll pickup up and work two, three, four departments,” Thomas said. “They fill their schedules up and if we have an unexpected opening, they’re not available because they’re already working somewhere else.”

As the number of departments that are using part-timers continues to increase, that reduces the pool of available part-time employees, he said.

And when large departments decide to expand their ranks, as Cincinnati did in the last year when it hired about 100 new firefighters, it often means smaller departments taking the hit, according to Tony Goller, fire chief for West Chester Twp. Fire Department. That led to West Chester needing to replace about 14 part-time firefighters in the past year alone, Goller said.

As the pool of part-timers gets smaller and tighter, having to hire for a dozen or more extra positions also means an added expense and as much as four months of time needed for a variety of pre-employment screening measures such as drug screens, polygraph tests, physicals and background checks, but also for new turn-out gear once a firefighter is hired.

Once they’re on the job, training can take as long as six months, especially with a part-timer’s time divided between several departments.

“When you get them on, you have to train them your way because everybody has their own way of doing things and own special type of equipment,” Goller said. “It’s a time commitment to do that and if you’re constantly turning people over, you’re spending a lot of time doing that where you would normally be doing the everyday things of fire hydrant maintenance, fire inspections.

“Some things could get behind because of having to do that on a constant basis and none of our departments are big enough where we have separate divisions (where) that’s all they do is train. The people who are doing the training are the people who are sitting in the fire trucks and ambulances.”

Upon the completion of their training, part-time firefighters become “very attractive candidates” for full-time positions to both local fire departments and even those in other states, Thomas said.

“It’s tough,” he said. “We want to have the best quality of people working here and then they get hired because they are that.”

Liberty Twp. Fire Department now has 62 part-timers on its roster of 95 employees, officials said.

Paul Stumpf, the township’s fire chief, said it’s a challenge for his department to get enough part-timers, especially after losing several to larger departments.

In addition, eight members from both career and part-time ranks recently were on leaves of absence for various reasons, including medical, family, job status change and other reasons.

Stumpf said the township’s fire department has become “the farm team for some of the big cities.”

“It’s bittersweet,” he said. “We’ve had so many members get full-time positions with various different (departments). We must be doing something right because we have a good pool to draw from, but that’s the nature of the beast. They’re wooing them away with full-time career employment.”

Liberty Twp. Fire Department still has a number of employees who left for full-time positions in Middletown, Fairfield, Monroe and other cities but still work for Liberty on their days off, Stumpf said.

Fairfield Twp. Fire Department has 72 employees, of which three are full-time, and the department is still hiring, Thomas said.

“My direction from my trustees currently is to hire enough people to get my staffing up to our desired goal, which is 12 a day,” he said. “Right now, I’m still operating with 10 and sometimes even as low as eight on a shift.”

Part of the problem is that unlike full-timers, fire chiefs have a limited ability to mandate that part-timers work the hours needed to to fill a schedule shortage, Thomas said. In addition, being short-staffed is an increasingly common occurrence across the fire service.

“A lot of these guys want full-time jobs, and they see the part-time environment as a way to get experience and to improve their chances of getting a full-time position,” he said. “A lot of the departments hire from their part-time staff, so if that is the case, they’re going to want the experience, they’re going to want the training, they’re going to want to go and work for a place that hires when they’re part time.”

The Joint Resources and Response Committee — comprised of fire chiefs from Liberty, Fairfield, West Chester and Ross townships and the cities of Hamilton, Monroe and Oxford, and the Butler County Emergency Management Agency — recently was granted $84,000 to conduct a study from the Ohio Development Services Agency’s Local Government Innovation Fund.

The study will collect and analyze existing data relative to hiring and training costs, overtime and shared purchasing options.

The estimated potential combined savings to the fire departments could be $200,000 annually, according to the Butler County Educational Service Center, which helped the fire chiefs’ group in applying for the grant and continues to serve as the fiscal agent for the project.

Goller said a request for proposal is out right now and should be awarded in August. Coming up with a plan via the study should take about nine months, he said.

The potential outcome should be beneficial to all departments.

“Training could be cut down to weeks, where you only have to familiarize them with just certain things because everybody would be doing everything the same way,” Goller said. “There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel and teach them something (new).”

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©2014 the Journal-News (Hamilton, Ohio)

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