Butler County fire departments seek federal grants to help with staffing shortages
Mar. 18—Several Butler County fire departments have submitted applications for federal grants that would, if awarded, allow the departments to hire extra full-time firefighters in a time when many departments are in need of a bolstered staff.
Oxford, Middletown, Fairfield Twp. and Madison Twp. all submitted their applications for the program before Friday's 5 p.m. deadline, according to sources.
The program, dubbed the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grants (SAFER), is run through FEMA and the United States Secretary of Defense. It was set up to "enhance the local fire departments' abilities to comply with staffing, response and operational standards" through additional funding.
This year, fiscal year 2022, the program has $360 million available and expects to spread it among 300 grants, which would fund the additional hires for three years. The grants require no local match.
Fairfield Twp. Fire Chief Timothy Thomas told the Journal-News that the department applied for enough funding to hire three additional full-time firefighters. He said his department has struggled with limited applicants "along with everyone else in southwest Ohio and probably the entire country."
Each applicant's request can vary depending on the need of the department. In Middletown, the Journal-News reported the city will make a bid for a $3.1 million allotment to hire nine additional full-time personnel — eight firefighters and one lieutenant.
In a recent city council meeting, Middletown Fire Chief Dan Snively said those additional hires would be necessary to bring the department's staffing above the levels recommended by the department's most recent staffing and deployment analyses from 2018, which recommended shifts comprised of at least 22 personnel at a time for an effective force.
Snively said the staffing at Middletown's fire department has been outpaced by an uptick in call volume over the past 20 years. From 2002 to 2022, the number of calls for service has increased by 7,804 to 13,106, or 68%, Snively told council. In that same period, staffing has dropped from 22 to 19 per shift.
Oxford Assistant City Manager Jessica Greene said the city hopes to attain a SAFER grant that would allow its department to hire six additional full-time firefighters in order to achieve "an adequate level for staffing."
"We have had increased calls for service over the past several years and also increased mandatory overtime, which is not healthy for our staff, so our goal is to increase staffing to provide necessary public safety to our community," Greene said.
Greene said she expects the nationwide grants to be very competitive, and the city might need to take additional steps to obtain more funding for the fire department if their application doesn't result in a grant.
"We need additional funding for fire staffing, we have determined that," Greene said. "Our city manager and our council are actively reviewing what options we have to increase funding for fire staffing, but no decision has been made about what strategy we're going to look at."
Madison Twp. Fire Chief Kent Hall said his department, too, would be submitting, as it "always submits [for] any grant that we're available to submit for."
Remaining departments either opted not to submit applications or couldn't be reached at the time of reporting.
For West Chester Twp. and Hamilton, the two departments opted to forgo an application after recently receiving similar grants from the state's American Rescue Plan funds.
Liberty Twp. Fire Chief Ethan Klussman said his department received the SAFER grant three years ago and held off on applying again this year. And, in terms of payroll and staffing, Klussman said the department is in a sustainable spot.
"There's always a need for more staffing, but right now, in the current climate, we're able to utilize our full and part-time personnel to fill our voids," Klussman said.
Trenton, too, sat out this year's application process, despite funding concerns. Trenton Fire Department is currently funded to support part-time workers, and, due to an internally-assessed need to bring on full-time employees, the city council is considering putting an additional fire levy to fund that organizational shift on the ballot this fall.
Because the SAFER grant is only a temporary, three-year fix to staffing problems, Trenton City Manager Marcos Nichols said the city would be unwilling to take on additional full-time hires without the baseline funding that could conceivably fund their salaries and benefits once the grant runs out.
"The decision to move forward with the SAFER grant is really contingent upon whether or not something gets placed on the ballot full time," Nichols said. "Otherwise, we would be on the hook for those three individuals after the SAFER grant expires with no additional funding."