Tuesday, July 9th, 2024

'Guys are burnt out'

Celina Firefighters: We need help, need it soon

By William Kincaid
Photo by Paige Sutter/The Daily Standard

Celina Fire Chief Joel Lange talks about the issues faced by an understaffed, deeply strained fire department.

CELINA - Fire Chief Joel Lange fought back tears as he described the plight of the Celina Fire Department and the little he says it has to offer potential recruits during a jam-packed safety services commitee meeting held before Monday night's regular city council meeting.

City councilors, in turn, indicated they have a better understanding of what Lange and his full-time firefighters/emergency medical services personnel are going through.

However, they provided no immediate solutions, other than an amended agreement with the firefighters' union they passed as an emergency measure that will allow candidates without EMT credentials to work for the city as they undergo training and eventual certification.

At present, the fire department has 13 full-time members, including Lange, four short of a normal roster, Lange said. Just the other day, Lange said the department was running a three-man shift, adding that it had an "eerie feel."

Typically, only four firefighters are responding to each fire.

"I think for a typical two-story structure fire, you should be responding with like 16 people, which again, that's a super large amount and we'll never get to that point," he said. "But all these big cities, they got 30, 40 people showing up to their house fires and we've got four."

Paramedic staffing levels are troubling as well.

"We are down to three paramedics a shift," he said. "Actually, two shifts will have two paramedics here soon."

Fire departments in Celina, Wapakoneta, Van Wert and even Lima and Sidney, Lange said, are all in the same situation as they jockey for desperately needed personnel.

Celina needs to find a way to stand out from the pack, he said. At issue are wages, poor working conditions, an inadequate fire station and callback duties, Lange pointed out.

Firefighters work 24-hour shifts and are supposed to be off for 48 hours but often are called in to help man runs, keeping them away from their families and any sense of normalcy.

What Celina has to offer candidates is a family atmosphere - and even that is compromised at the moment.

"It's a family, and right now we're getting broke up. It just weighs on you. But that's what we offer them because we don't have a whole lot else to offer," he said.

Compounding the situation is a big age gap among personnel, Lange said. There's firefighters with little experience, and another who's been with the department for 30 years. Some personnel will be retiring in the next few years.

"It's bad, guys. Like, we got a huge gap. So we're going to have shifts of guys who have one, two years experience," Lange said.

Photo by Paige Sutter/The Daily Standard

Celina City Council member Eric Clausen, right, speaks at Monday's safety services committee meeting.

Councilman Thomas Sanford asked if more volunteer firefighters/EMS personnel would help alleviate the callback load.

"To be straight with you, right now we need people to work shift. That's our biggest struggle," Lange said. "We need to find full-time staff, we need to find full-time firefighter/paramedics. Volunteers would help, but I mean, ultimately we need shift coverage."

Even should the department recruit several volunteers, they would come at a cost because each set of fire gear carries a $4,500 price tag and needs replaced every decade, he pointed out.

It goes without saying the department is struggling to cover shifts.

"Guys are burnt out. We're working 48-hour shifts and then taking call-ins on the day off," Lange said.

The callback system is failing, Lange said in blunt terms.

"It's been failing for years and it's finally caught up to us," he said.

Being a rural area with limited resources and personnel, callback will almost always be a necessity, Lange said. The only way to reduce the burden would be to bring on more employees or establish a second fire station in town, he argued.

"Whatever we do is going to cost money," he said. "I think we need to be proactive. I don't want to sit here and just put a Band-Aid on it. I know you guys feel the same way. This is a serious issue and I know you guys recognize that."

Councilors mulled various way to ameliorate the department's predicament, including contracting public relations and/or marketing services to combat the negative comments made about Celina online and elsewhere and hiring a firm to search for candidates throughout the country.

Mayor Jeff Hazel noted that a feasibility study will determine how to proceed with a fire department upgrade/expansion. There was also talk of creating a cadet program to lure young people into the profession.

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Councilman Matt Gray said city officials need to research nepotism laws to see if there's any wiggle room for members of the same families to work together at the fire department.

"That would be some of our best recruiting tools is to bring in the family members and try to make it more of a family member organization," he said. "But we also need other people to step up in the community."

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