May 15—The Fairfield Fire Department is the latest in Butler County to come to terms with a shortage of part-time firefighters, and officials said a lag in adjusting to more full-timers has brought urgency to the staffing needs.
A proposed hiring of three new full-time positions would be the next step in moving away from part-timers, which Fairfield was among the first to employ in the county several decades ago. But the staffing situation is causing concerns, which departments across the state have battled with in light of the demand and short stints of the part-time employees.
"This is the most sobering presentation we've had since I've come back to City Council," said Councilman Mark Scharringhausen, who was appointed in March 2020 to fill the unexpired term for the late Councilman Ron D'Epifanio, said during Monday's meeting after a review of the issue.
"We need to transition and just put away this pipe dream of continuing to try to make it on part-time (firefighters)."
Longevity for part-time firefighters is now measured in months, not years. Since January 2019, 63 part-time firefighters were hired by Fairfield, and the department has only 30 on staff now. The average experience of Fairfield's part-time staff is less than six months.
The current trend of part-time firefighters having their choice of full-time jobs began a few years ago. It's a trend that was "unheard of in my time," said Fairfield Fire Chief Don Bennett, who is also serving as acting city manager. The part-time shortage is coupled with the trend that fewer people want to be firefighters, Bennett said.
Bennett said the city got into its dire staffing situation because "we just simply held on too long for economic reasons. We simply tried to operate the fire department within the funds provided and it just has not worked out."
Because part-time staffers are looking for full-time jobs as soon as they're hired, thousands of hours of overtime have been worked in the first four-plus months of 2021. The city is on pace to spend more than $1.3 million just in overtime, Bennett said. A significant number of those overtime hours have been worked by part-time staff.
The more than 10,000 hours of collective overtime to date has put a strain on firefighters' work and personal lives "to the point of fatigue," Bennett said.
"When you're working people that hard you're asking for disaster," City Councilman Dale Paullus said.
The first move City Council will make out of necessity is hiring three new firefighters, a move that is expected to be made on May 25, the day after the council's anticipated authorization. This won't stop the overtime woes or the lack of part-time firefighters, but Bennett said it will boost morale as a sign of anticipated staffing improvements.
The Fairfield Fire Department has 30 full-time line personnel, including 21 firefighter/paramedics, six lieutenants, and three captains. It also has three executive staff, one fire chief and two deputy chiefs. The department is authorized to have 48 part-time firefighters, but only 40 spots are filled "with no guarantee of being able to fill (the remaining eight) due to low application numbers," said Deputy Chief Randie McCreadie.
Fairfield was one of the first departments to offer part-time jobs, working from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and allowed them to cover the entire city from Station 33 on Winton Road. At the time, in 1985, the department was losing volunteer on-call paid personnel.
That model allowed the city to go to 24-hour coverage by 1990, Bennett said. Now, the chief said, "we're the last one to realize we have a problem."
This move is similar to the transition with the city's dispatchers, converting the 10 full-time and six part-time positions into 16 full-time positions. However, Bennett said the fire department isn't likely to transition to an all-professional department, yet.
"I think at some point in time, over the next five years, the department may be faced with adding career personnel," he said. "There are fewer and fewer people applying for public-sector and private-sector jobs, particularly with police and fire."
The city could bring on six or possibly nine more full-time firefighters, depending on whether the city receives a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant. Bennett said has a 50%shot at getting a 2021 grant, which would completely fund its nine-firefighter request.
Fairfield could have hired six new full-time firefighters with a 2019 SAFER grant, which the City Council voted to reject. It would have paid for 75 percent of the costs for the first two years of the grant and 35 percent in the third year. Then-City Manager Mark Wendling said accepting the grant would have drained funds from the 2016-approved levy by 2023, requiring the city to consider a replacement levy two years early.
Because of the staffing woes, the city still faces the need for a new levy, but now it would be as early as next year.
Bennett said since City Council rejected the 2019 SAFER grant, it's unlikely the city would be awarded the 2021 grant. Scharringhausen said regardless if the city is awarded the SAFER grant, "it doesn't change the paradigm we're operating in."
"We need to maintain the level of fire service that we've had in the past," he said.