Federal grant paves way for more Ohio firefighters

The SAFER grant distributed $340 million in 2015 to staff departments nationwide

By Denise G. Callahan

BUTLER COUNTY, Ohio — Several fire departments in Butler County are taking advantage of federal funds to hire additional firefighters, but at least one is staying away from the money because leaders say they won’t be able to support the added personnel when the grant expires.

The city of Monroe is the latest jurisdiction to receive Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) funds, which will cover the cost of hiring seven new firefighters for two years. The $1 million grant pays for payroll, benefits, insurance and retirement, but does not cover overtime, uniforms, training or equipment.

Monroe Fire Chief John Centers said he outlined future staffing in 2013 for what the department needed to look like in 2018, and the SAFER grant has made that a reality ahead of schedule.

“We based that (staffing study) on growth analysis and historical changes in our call volume in the city,” he said. “We believed at that time we would need to add six positions.”

The seventh position is a community paramedic position, a role that has been filled by the regular crew for a year. That person will reach out mainly to elderly patients they have transported to the hospital for things like heart attacks, strokes, respiratory issues and the like, and create a proactive care plan.

“The goal is to basically be able to keep them at home and out of the hospital and out of the doctor’s office,” he said. “We’ll work with the physicians groups and hospitals on that to be able to provide something that reduces the likelihood of readmission.”

For fiscal year 2015 — funds are being distributed this year — $340 million was allocated for SAFER grants nationwide. Middletown also recently learned they are getting $1.8 million, allowing them to hire a dozen fire department staff. Hamilton has applied to the Department of Homeland Security, the grant provider, for $490,000 to cover three new firefighter positions and Fairfield Twp. is also waiting to hear if they will be allotted $300,000 to add three new full-time staffers.

It appears Oxford is the only large jurisdiction in the county that hasn’t applied for SAFER funding. Fire Chief John Detherage said the reason is quite simple.

“We have not applied for SAFER funds due to fear of not being able to sustain the positions at the end of the grant,” he said.

Centers said the city can support the extra personnel when the grant runs out.

“We looked at the funding and where we think we’ll be at the end of that grant cycle and it was believed the budget would support continuing those positions…,” he said. “It was agreed that we would continue to fund those positions and we were capable of funding those positions.”

Middletown officials too believe they can continue to pay the new people after the grant expires. The city already has negotiated with the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 336 to lower pay classifications for those with certifications of firefighter/EMT, as opposed to firefighter/paramedic.

“We had to come up with a plan to make things safe for our firefighters and the citizens of Middletown, and they (union leaders) really stepped up to the plate, and there was a lot of cooperation across the board to get this accomplished,” Fire Chief Paul Lolli told the Journal-News earlier.

“We have an adequate number of paramedics — we need more firefighters on duty,” Lolli said.

Within the next five years, 28 firefighters now working for the city will be able to retire, not that they all will, Lolli said. As they are replaced by lower-paid firefighter/EMTs, that will help the city sustain the increased staffing.

West Chester Twp. was able to hire firefighters in 2006 using a $555,317 SAFER grant.

“West Chester pursues various sources of grants to enhance and improve operational services and community infrastructure, only once certain the township can sustain the legacy costs associated with those grants,” Township Administrator Judi Boyko said. “West Chester applied for a SAFER grant in 2006 to hire six firefighters to meet the needs of the community and continue exceptional fire service.”

Centers said the SAFER grants were established to help communities replenish staffing that was depleted during economic downturns. He said his city hasn’t had any layoffs but there were some open positions they didn’t fill during the Great Recession.

Liberty Twp. Fire Chief Paul Stumpf said they don’t need to beef up their staffing but even if they did, money wouldn’t be the biggest issue.

“Honestly our staffing is good, our biggest problem is finding people,” he said. There’s not enough people going into the fire service. There’s too few qualified people chasing too many jobs.”

Copyright 2016 the Journal-News 

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