MIAMI TOWNSHIP, Ohio -- Few people would question the value of firefighters and paramedics -- they form part of every city's most critical emergency infrastructure and care for people facing their own most desperate hours. But, according to Chief Steve Kelly of the Miami Township Fire Department, it seems even fewer people are interested in joining their ranks.
"We've started having a lot of conversations about, 'How are we going to develop the next generation of firefighters?' It's becoming more and more of a challenge," he said.
The nation's ongoing shortage of firefighter and paramedic recruits hits rural communities like Kelly's hardest -- when local departments are understaffed, such communities can be forced to rely on help that takes longer and comes from farther away -- but the effect has even reached Cincinnati's fire department, where Chief Richard Braun said in 2016 the rate of recruitment failed to outpace the rate of retirement.
It's the same in Kelly's department. Although Miami Township isn't hurting for full-timers at the moment, anticipated retirements in 2019 could deal a major blow to his staff and their ability to serve their community.
The reasons behind the shortage are multifaceted, Kelly said, stemming partially from a lack of interest in part-time and volunteer positions as the job market continues to gain strength.
"We're finding that the part time pool is no longer as deep as it used to be," he said. "Full-time jobs are plentiful, so people are jumping from one full-time job to another full-time job in hopes of getting the ultimate full-time job where they want to work."
But even those interesting in a part-time position face hurdles to becoming a firefighter or paramedic -- namely, a lack of available training.
The University of Cincinnati Clermont closed its paramedic training program in December 2016 after a nationwide search for a new director failed to yield either a full crop of applicants or adaquete federal funds, according to spokesperson Mae Hannah. Eastern counties were then left without a nearby place to earn paramedic certification. A resident of a county like Adams could theoretically make the hour-plus hike to Cincinnati State University or Butler Tech, but the travel time and cost involved could also prove prohibitive.
Southern Hills Career and Technical Center is listening to the concern of chiefs like Kelly and developing a year-long paramedic certification curriculum, according to adult educational coordinator Vicky Carrington.
"It is everything from anatomy to what kind of drugs you give somebody if they need them," she said.
It's a positive step, but it won't be enough to turn the tide, Kelly said. He said he believes real change will come from creative staffing and early recruitment: Reaching out early and reaching out to "non-traditional" firefighting and paramedic candidates.
"I think we could definitely do a better job researching out to even middle school level students and teaching them what firefighters and police officers and EMS providers and public safety professionals really do," he said.
"I wish I had one of those Magic 8-Balls I could shake and it would give me a bunch of the answers and everything," he added. "I think the best thing we can do as chiefs is to keep coming together and share ideas."