Canton Township Fire Chief Christopher Smith worries about fatigue and burnout in the ranks as more part-time firefighters leave for other departments.
January 14, 2019
Canton Township, OH, Fire Department
CANTON TWP. — As Fire Chief Christopher Smith looks over the status of his roster, he senses the potential for challenging times ahead.
He isn’t worried about the quality of the firefighters. Smith just wants to be assured he has enough staff when an emergency call comes in. His concern is the frequency of part-time members leaving to join other departments.
“The biggest concern we have is if our numbers continue to deplete, it makes it more difficult to maintain the level of staffing and services that we have right now,” Smith said. “The way to counter it is to offer overtime. Our overtime budget will go up.”
It’s reached the point where he and the township trustees will meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Canton Township Community Center at 210 38th St. SE to review the staffing situation and options for the future.
The township has 11 full-time firefighters, excluding the chief and assistant chief. Their ranks are supplemented by the corps of part-timers, currently at 17. One other part-timer is on a leave of absence. In 2014, the Fire Department had 35 part-timers.
“Each shift we try to maintain seven people a day,” Smith said. “At this point we are able to do that. As our part-time numbers keep dropping, it makes it harder to fill available open spots each day.”
It is not so much the overtime expense that Smith said concerns him as it is the burden on the personnel to frequently work extra hours. It exacerbates the “fatigue and burnout factor,” according to the fire chief.
“The issue is do we need to hire more full-time? We have got to look at our options. We want to come up with a plan and structure that is sustainable, that is not dependent on a part-time work force that is trending to be obsolete.”
Along with fire protection, the department provides emergency medical service. The township Fire Department operates out of three stations: one in the 3500 block of Sherman Church Avenue SW, another in the 3100 block of Parkway Street NW in the Meyers Lake area and a third in the 1600 block of Waynesburg Drive SE in the Waco area.
There are plans to construct a new fire station at the Canton Township Community Center by building an 8,340-square-foot addition. If and when this happens, township officials look to close one of the existing stations. The Community Center currently houses the department administration offices.
This issue isn’t unique to Canton Township. Louisville Fire Chief Rod Bordner has similar concerns about retaining personnel. For the Louisville Fire Department, the issue was the need to enhance employment benefits.
“We are still in the same boat as Canton Township,” Bordner said. “We use part-timers, and we are wrestling with the same issue.”
Fire departments nationwide rely on a corps of part-timers, according to Perry Township Fire Chief Mark Martin.
“I would offer that the majority of the departments in Stark County use either volunteer or part-time firefighters,” said Martin, who also is president of the Ohio Fire Chiefs’ Association. “Under the state law, the part-time firefighter is not under the pension system. They pay into Social Security.”
The state pension system for full-time safety officers is the Ohio Police & Firefighters Pension Fund. Having that available could be an incentive for some part-time firefighters to seek full-time positions with communities such as Massillon or Canton, or even larger cities, such as Columbus, theorized Martin.
Is expanding full-time staff feasible in Canton Township?
“I believe (Smith) is looking at various options,” Trustee Christopher Nichols said. “I don’t know if there is a solution out there.”
Nichols is the longest serving of the three township trustees. He was first elected in 2001. For Nichols, expanding the full-time crew of firefighters might not be the appropriate option.
“I don’t know if that is necessarily the solution,” Nichols said. “I don’t think we have the finances to be a totally full-time department. Adding or beefing up the full-time staff, I would agree, is one of the options. When I first got elected, we leaned heavily on volunteers. When the volunteers ranks dwindled, that is when the part-timers came in.”
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