FAIRFIELD, Ohio — Fairfield planned to convert its combination fire department into an all-career department in five years. But because of a federal staffing grant, that timeline has been significantly cut.
On Monday, Fairfield accepted a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant, which will pay for nine full-time firefighters/paramedics over the next three years.
Fairfield told voters it would convert the 36 part-time positions, which not are all filled, into 18 full-time jobs. The department’s authorized strength would go to 57 full-time firefighters/paramedics. On Monday, six new firefighters/paramedics took oaths of office and the nine to be hired with SAFER grant money will give the city 15 new full-timers.
These new hires will expedite the transition into an all-career department, also called a professional department, which means there will be no part-timers. Fairfield has been a revolving door for part-time firefighters staying for a brief time before accepting a full-time job elsewhere.
Scores of part-timers have been hired and left the department for full-time jobs or other careers over the past several years. Since January 2019, the average experience level among the part-time staff had been less than six months. In 2015, though, the average experience level for a part-time firefighter in Fairfield was four years.
The city was one of the first in the region to start using part-time personnel, which allowed the city to go to 24-hour coverage by 1990. While that model helped the department 30 years ago when full-time firefighting jobs were few and far between, that’s not the case now as there are more full-time jobs available than people looking.
Fairfield voters agreed in May to eliminate the city’s existing levies and replace them with a new containing levy. Nearly 66% of the voters agreed to support a new 9.25-mill continuing fire levy, according to official May primary election results.
“This is really exciting because we’re getting way ahead of the ball game,” said Council member Dale Paullus, council’s public safety committee chair, of getting the SAFER grant.
It wasn’t certain if the city would be awarded the grant after rejecting a federal grant award in 2019. Fairfield didn’t receive a SAFER grant request in 2021 when it applied, and fire executives anticipated the same result for the 2022 application.
Acting Fairfield fire chief Randy McCreadie said he was waiting on Monday night’s council vote on the legislation accepting the 2022 SAFER grant before calling potential candidates on Tuesday. He said the department has already interviewed and assessed potential candidates in anticipation of that vote.
Getting to this point, McCreadie said, “has been a hard road.”
Fairfield had been in a difficult position for the past several years. The city couldn’t retain part-time personnel because there were too many full-time jobs available in the region, and accepting the 2019 SAFER grant, which would have allowed the department to hire six full-time firefighters, would deplete the fire levy funds at the time without going back to the voters. Fairfield just had a new fire levy approved by voters in 2016.
But the three-year $3.41 million reimbursement grant to pay for the nine firefighters will set the Fairfield Fire Department up for success as more firefighters will be on a shift, McCreadie said.
With the six firefighters hired on Monday and the nine from the grant, Fairfield will soon have 15 more full-time firefighters on staff. This will allow the city to have 18 firefighters per shift ― one captain, three lieutenants, and 14 firefighters/paramedics ― when they are on board. Each shift generally has 15 total firefighters now because of vacancies within the part-time ranks, McCreadie said.
The target of 18 new firefighters as a result of May’s levy passage will be completed by the end of 2023.
Slashing the timeline to hire the 18 new firefighters is important because “there are numerous departments around us that have already posted job openings and hiring opportunities,” McCreadie said. He said Cincinnati will start up more firefighter recruitment classes, and communities like Blue Ash, Evendale, Fairfield Twp., Union Twp. Clermont have posted openings for full-time jobs.
“You got all these departments around us posting jobs that are hiring, and we have to capture folks now while we can, because if we don’t, we would have to start a new testing process and that generally takes months,” McCreadie said.
Fairfield has nine candidates on the current list it can offer jobs and five of whom are currently part-time firefighters with Fairfield. Two others have previously worked for the city.
“So seven of the nine have institutional knowledge, which benefits us because it takes less time to orient them on board with this department,” the acting chief said.