Mayor Andrew J. Ginther has approved adding 25 fire recruits to the Columbus Fire Division by December to fill positions as more firefighters retire than had been expected.
The recruits are to keep staffing near its current level of about 1,580 firefighters, although the division will end the year with 10 more firefighters and paramedics than it had when the year began.
Firefighters said, though, that by the time the recruits are trained and graduate early next year, the division will have lost 10 more people to retirements, negating any gain.
“As our city continues to grow and attract new residents, we must continue to invest in the Columbus Division of Fire to ensure we maintain the firefighters necessary to keep Columbus neighborhoods safe,” Ginther said in a statement.
Ginther also wants to reduce firefighter overtime, something Fire Chief Kevin O’Connor said he has been trying to address.
The division spent $8.6 million on overtime last year, $2.5 million more than the average of the previous three years.
“That has been my No. 1 priority the whole year,” O’Connor said. “This additional class will help. It’s needed.”
The city added a class of 40 recruits this year. In late July, after Ginther met with fire officials pleading for personnel, he agreed to the additional 25 after it was determined that the city will have $2.3 million in the budget next year to fund the class.
Dave Montgomery, president of International Association of Firefighters Local 67, said the new recruits are a start, but the move does not address the city’s growing needs or the losses of firefighters and paramedics because of retirements over the past several years. He said the division is short about 100 firefighters and paramedics.
“The 25 recruits is appreciated, but we are down numbers-wise, and they know it,” Montgomery said of city officials. “The city is not keeping pace with staffing and the demands for services from the public, but we are hopeful that the mayor is addressing that we are behind.”
Both administrators and union officials agree that the division must find a way to serve a growing population and an increase in medical needs.
City Hall has demanded that the division use data to deploy personnel efficiently. The division began that directive under former Chief Gregory A. Paxton, and O’Connor said he has increasingly relied on data to make executive decisions.
Columbus also has relied heavily on its suburban mutual-aid partners to help along the outer ring of the city.
The division has an operating budget of $232 million, funding 1,578 firefighters and paramedics. That is about the same staffing level the division had in the mid-1990s.
Since that time, the city has added more than 130,000 residents. Last year, fire and emergency service runs increased 20 percent, to almost 150,000, from 2014. Nearly 80 percent of those were for non-fire emergencies.
Using data to deploy resources also contributed to the uptick in overtime, O’Connor said.
The division added five medic units in the past three years that are staffed with paramedics working overtime to meet demands in the busiest parts of the city.
Payroll data show, however, that overtime spiked when O’Connor became chief in 2015 and that a majority of the extra medics had been in place the previous year.
O’Connor’s focus on reducing overtime this year appears to be working. Payroll data show that overtime is down by $400,000 this year from the same period of 2015.
“We are trying to be as efficient as we can, given the demands by the public,” O’Connor said. “ But I want to assure the public that there has not been any reduction in the quality of service we are providing.”
More recruits are probably on the way in 2017 to staff an $8.5 million fire station that Ginther has pledged to build on Waggoner Road on the Far East Side. The city bought land nearly a decade ago to build a station, but other budget priorities under Ginther’s predecessor, Michael B. Coleman, delayed the project. Station construction is to start late in 2017, and the station is expected to be active by 2018, Ginther’s spokeswoman said.
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