EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is the last in a three-day series about the number of area residents who died in building fires last year, and the challenges faced by fire departments, especially volunteer departments.
By EILEEN MCCLORY
Large areas of northwestern Ohio rely on volunteer fire departments to protect homes and property.
Yet, many of those departments have trouble recruiting firefighters. Some also struggle with budget constraints.
And new regulations from the state are putting a burden on volunteer departments, fire chiefs say.
Ottawa Fire Chief Dan Rieman said getting new recruits goes in streaks. Sometimes, his Putnam County department will have a long list of possible recruits. Other times, there is no list, and there’s a line of people leaving the department.
The department currently has about 40 firefighters and is looking for recruits.
Bascom Joint Fire Chief Mark DeVault in Seneca County had 26 people on his roster in June. He said it can be a problem to recruit new firefighters because of the time commitment.
“I’m sure lots of people would like to help. It does take a lot of time, and people just don’t have the time,” he said.
Several other volunteer fire chiefs agreed, saying the amount of time it takes for a firefighter to become certified hurts recruitment efforts.
Certification to be a volunteer firefighter takes 36 hours, according to the Ohio Emergency Medical Service website.
The next level of firefighter, called Firefighter I, requires 160 hours of coursework. That certification has to be renewed every three years with 54 hours of continuing education required during those three years.
A third level, Firefighter II, is required for career firefighters.
Ohio officials are pushing volunteer firefighters to get Firefighter I certification, rather than volunteer certification, but whether that will happen depends on the department.
Ottawa’s Rieman said most of the new recruits in his department get the higher certification. But due to time constraints, some have the volunteer certification.
In Carey, Fire Chief Chad Snyder said the push to make everyone a Firefighter I could hurt some departments.
“It will hurt (the Carey department), but it will really hurt smaller departments, the more rural departments, because guys just don’t have that kind of time to put into obtaining the schooling and everything,” Snyder said.
Snyder said he is proud of the current response times of his fire crews: four minutes, generally, from when they are paged.
“Really, I think that’s very unheard of for volunteer departments,” Snyder said. “Most paid departments aren’t going to be too much faster.”
A majority of the area’s volunteer firefighters are unpaid. In most local districts, the chief and an assistant chief are paid small salaries.
Snyder said he just got a pay raise, from $3,000 a year to $7,500 a year. Al Latta, Arlington Volunteer Fire Department chief, said he makes $5,000 a year.
The volunteer departments are based in villages and townships, so they understand the importance of budgeting.
But district finances don’t always work out. The Northwest Hancock Joint Fire District was formed after finances got too complicated between the village of McComb, Pleasant Township and Portage Township, all of which were responsible for funding different parts of the fire department.
If a township fire levy didn’t pass, part of the department would lose funding, said Gene Barker, a board member of the joint fire district and a Portage Township trustee.
The joint district was formed to make it easier to pass taxes, Barker said, and also to encourage communication between the townships and the village.
Instead of several different organizations, Barker said, Fire Chief Anthony Stateler has one board to report to, made up of three trustees from Portage Township, three trustees from Pleasant Township and three council members from McComb.
The joint fire district has been operating for two and a half years. It began collecting levy funds at the beginning of 2018.
Barker said creating the district wasn’t easy. Some people were definitely resistant to change, he said.
But “at the end of the day, you have to keep (the department) running,” he said.
Valerie Kuenzli, fiscal officer for the joint fire district, said its budget for 2018 is $215,377.
That’s much more than the Bascom volunteer department has to work with: $137,958 this year.
In comparison, Findlay Fire Chief Josh Eberle said his department currently has 64 fire employees and one administrative assistant.
Findlay Fire Department spent approximately $7 million in 2017, according to the Hancock County Auditor’s Office. Approximately $4.4 million went toward employee salaries, according to the auditor’s office, and about $2.3 million was spent on personnel benefits.
The city fire department came in under budget last year, Eberle said.
While the finances of city and volunteer fire departments are significantly different, the chiefs of the volunteer departments said they love their jobs, even if they aren’t paid much to do them.
“For me, it’s always been the satisfaction of giving back to the community, and you know, one day I may need these guys,” Arlington’s Latta said.
For other chiefs, it’s the fun of the job that keeps them going. Rieman works from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. at another job. But after that, he is at the Ottawa fire station.
“I enjoy helping people out,” Rieman said. “I just enjoy what it’s all about, being a part of it.”