Lebanon seeks grant to convert part-time firefighters to full-time

Department is struggling with staffing issues

Finding enough good employees is currently difficult everywhere, including the fire service, as the pool of part-time firefighter/EMTs is getting shallower for small departments.

Lebanon is no exception and Fire Chief Steve Johnson said the situation is getting “critical” for the city as larger fire departments are hiring. The city is now looking at transitioning part-time firefighters into full-time roles and is seeking federal funds to accomplish that.

“We’re definitely struggling,” Johnson said. “We’re going against an unprecedented hiring by the larger departments ... We’re turning rocks to get people inside the door.”

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Johnson and Lebanon City Manager Scott Brunka recommended the city apply for a federal SAFER grant to hire more firefighters.

If the grant is approved, the federal government would provide 100% of the costs to convert six part-time positions to full-time and allow the department to have a ratio of nine full-time career firefighters and three part-time firefighters, Brunka said. He said that each of the converted positions will represent an incremental cost increase of about $30,000.

Johnson believes a lot of candidates who would have gone through the training pipeline did not because training facilities were shut down due to COVID-19.

Those who served as part-time firefighters are being snapped up by larger fire departments in places such as Middletown, and Washington and Clearcreek townships. And the larger metro fire departments in Dayton, Cincinnati and Columbus are hiring full-timers away from smaller departments, he said.

“At any given time, there are five to seven fire departments looking for full-time firefighters,” Johnson said. “It’s almost impossible to find them. If you do, they are 18 or 19 years old and fresh out of the academy.”

Clearcreek Twp. Fire Chief Steve Agenbroad, who also serves as president of the Warren County Fire Chiefs’ Association, said, “It’s a problem throughout southwest Ohio because the labor pool is down and the job market has never been hotter.”

Agenbroad said when he started out, there might be 400 people applying for a handful of open positions. Now in some places there are not enough candidates.

Clearcreek Fire Department is a full-time, career department. Agenbroad said suburban departments are growing, and the larger departments are recruiting from the smaller ones to fill their ranks as veteran firefighters retire.

“Lots of departments are struggling to find full-time firefighters,” he said. “And the very small departments who rely on volunteers are also struggling because there are more things competing for their time at home or work.”

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The base pay for a Lebanon firefighter is about $60,000 a year, and there are larger departments in the area that pay closer to $100,000 a year. City officials said the shortage of part-time firefighters is causing small departments to consider full-time career staffing and eliminate the part-time staffing.

He said a number of the part-time firefighters also worked full-time with other departments. However, some communities are not allowing their firefighters to serve as part-timers elsewhere because departments are mandating overtime due to fewer personnel. The personnel shortages have also created brown-outs in some cities where a station is not manned for periods of time.

“The part-time system is a good system because you can see a person’s work ethic as they are ‘interviewing every day’ working with the full-timers,” Johnson said. He said it also allows the part-timers to obtain more training.

Lebanon operates two fire stations, the new Station 41 on North Broadway, and Station 42 on Nelson Road. It has a total of 12 combination full- and part-time firefighters on duty per shift, broken down to seven full-timers and five part-timers. About 80% of the 3,500 calls for service were EMS runs, while 20% were fire suppression runs.

Johnson said keeping the fire houses staffed is requiring overtime to be paid, which he said is unsustainable. Not having both stations open increases response times, which is unacceptable. He said the lack of reliable part-time staffing is forcing the department to operate below its preferred levels.

It also means that the city is more reliant on mutual aid from other fire departments such as Turtlecreek, Clearcreek and South Lebanon, he said.

In 2021, the city received 19 applications for part-time firefighters. Of those candidates, five were hired.

Johnson said, “we lost four part-timers in the last few weeks who chose to work full-time elsewhere.”

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