When Athens Fire Chief Bob Rymer compared staffing from his Athens departments to those of fellow college towns Bowling Green, Oxford and Kent, he said Athens staffing was “lower, lower, lower.”
With only 22 full-time members on staff, the Athens Fire Department has the highest ratio of firefighters to residents among similar college towns, with about 2,151 residents for every firefighter.
Kent’s ratio follows closest with a ratio of about 1,797 residents for every firefighter.
Though AFD is budgeted for 22 full-time staffers, Rymer said the department is currently short-staffed by three personnel. He added, though, that it is currently in the process of hiring two new full-time firefighters.
For Athens Mayor Paul Wiehl, however, 22 is enough.
“I guess really the question would be, ‘Do we have a need for it at this point?’ ” Wiehl said.
Replacing three firefighters is not as easy as it seems, said Athens Councilman Jeff Risner, D-2nd Ward.
Finding fully-trained personnel can be a daunting task, Risner said.
“The problem is that the employees that (the fire department) hire have to go through firefighting school and they have to be willing to come here,” Risner said.
Risner, the head of the finance and personnel committee, said it comes down to a central issue: location.
“A lot of them, they want to live in Columbus,” he said. “It’s hard to get the trained personnel. You can’t just get someone off the street.”
Growing Population: Ohio University
Though the population of Athens proper has remained stagnant for the past five years, enrollment at OU — whose campus falls under AFD jurisdiction — has risen.
In 2014, OU admitted its largest freshman class, with total undergraduate enrollment at about 24,000 students, growing by more than 2,000 during a five-year span.
The 2015 freshman class topped that with a 1 percent increase.
Despite the expanding campus population and the addition of four new South Green residence halls, Wiehl said he isn’t concerned with the potential work increase for the 22 firefighters on call 24/7.
Wiehl said new technologies make the buildings safer to live in and easier to handle in a fire situation.
“Chief Rymer and the previous chief both look at construction plans, both in the city and in the county and on the campus, to make sure that we can actually have access to the areas that need funded for fire protection as well as the placement of hydrants, sprinklers,” Wiehl said.
Wiehl said a third of the calls originate from OU.
In the past year, the fire department went on 365 runs to university property, including drills, false alarms and the occasional trashcan fire, according AFD reports.
The fire department went on a total of 936 calls last year, according to AFD’s 2015 annual report. That was a record-breaking number, according to the report, which is consistent with an increase of calls during the last decade.
Staffing on a budget
Rymer said he would be interested in employing more personnel past the three vacant positions, “but it comes down to how much money” the city has.
According to Athens City Auditor Kathy Hecht, the fire department’s total 2015 budget rests at about $3.4 million — the second largest portion of the general fund — with about $2.4 million of that going toward payroll.
In comparison, about $3.7 million goes to APD, according to previous Post reports.
To offset costs of covering a population that nearly matches that of Athens itself, university and city officials drafted a Memorandum of Understanding, stating that OU will contribute to the purchase of new equipment for the department.
In the most recent MOU, drafted in January 2015, OU officials agreed to help offset the purchase of a new pumper truck — slated to cost the city about $585,000, according to previous Post reports. OU will contribute $250,000 over a span of five years, according to the MOU.
Though Rymer said operating a department on three shifts of seven firefighters was a feasible task, he added some complications arise when firefighters take off of work or miss due to illness or injury.
“When we have six on duty, we call that a ‘good day,’ ” Rymer said.
Rymer said when either of the two Athens departments hits their “minimum daily staffing level” — less than four officers on the premises — Rymer has to close the station.
Rymer said it’s very common for a firefighter to use his or her allotted vacation time and take a day off.
Despite absences, Risner said it rarely comes to closing an entire station.
“Usually what will happen is if someone calls in sick, we’ll bring in someone else from the crew that normally would have their day off,” Rymer said.
Rymer said closing a station happened “maybe twice in 2015.”
“The fire stations remain open with a staffing level of four; however, it does not provide an adequate response for high hazard calls such as fires, rescues, and other types,” Rymer said.
Though firefighters work on a schedule of one day on and two days off, personnel work 24-hour shifts, and added shifts can take a toll.
With only two departments on the peripheries of Uptown, one closed department could result in uneven coverage and slower response times, Risner said.
“If a station was to shut down, that puts that entire section of town at risk,” he said. “It wouldn’t look good for the city to have a fire station closed down due to personnel.”
Rymer said Athens relies on a state-wide response group composed of six or seven volunteer departments that fields calls for assistance during events like the Union Street fire which occurred last November
Asking for assistance
Rymer said when relying on a crew of 22, having a support system with volunteer departments often comes in handy.
During the Union Street fire, five departments other than Athens — The Plains, Nelsonville, Rome Township, Richland Area and Waterloo Township — responded to the fire that engulfed five uptown buildings. Three of the departments were volunteer stations.
Wiehl said those three are among the six or seven volunteer departments that are part of the statewide response group that fields calls for help from Athens.
When events like that of the Union Street fire break out, those departments quickly move in to help manage any situation that has arisen
“During the Union Street fire, we actually pulled them in, and then the ones in the periphery of the county actually pulled in midway to cover all the areas,” Wiehl said.
Raising the levels
Despite putting a request into their annual report, AFD’s staffing levels go unchanged.
“Like I said, there’s a limited number of people who are qualified to jump into a burning building and risk their life to put out a fire,” Risner said. “For some reason, a lot of people just don’t want to do that.”