Butler County fire chiefs collaborate on ways to save taxpayer money

Accepting background, medical tests from other departments could save money.

Butler County fire departments have long shared purchasing and equipment testing, but a new study shows there are other avenues to pursue that could save more taxpayer money.

Officials in all nine jurisdictions that participated in the two-year study agree sharing testing results in the part-time personnel hiring process is the most valuable observation to come out of the 115-page study.

Between 2009 and 2014 it cost eight of the nine jurisdictions — Hamilton didn’t have anyone leave — $217,012 to replace 49 people who went elsewhere. Liberty Twp. took the biggest hit, spending $44,910 administering an entrance exam, performing background checks, a polygraph and psychological assessment, and a medical physical among other measures, to replace six people.

Liberty Twp. Fire Chief Paul Stumpf and Monroe Chief John Centers were the prime movers behind the $84,000 study — they received an Local Government Innovation Fund grant for the project — and the chiefs are getting ready to start implementing parts of it.

The Ohio Fire Chiefs’ Association took an in-depth look at the processes and procedures the departments in Fairfield Twp., Hamilton, Liberty, Middletown, Monroe, Morgan Twp., Oxford, Ross and West Chester townships employ. The study shows for the personnel component particularly, hiring practices vary across the county.

Hamilton, which is the largest department with 96 full-time staff and an $11.4 million budget, follows a hiring procedure that is very similar to Liberty Twp.’s and costs $4,807, which includes post-hiring costs associated with training and equipment. In Ross Twp., it costs them $3,855, but they don’t perform psychological and some of the other tests Liberty Twp. and Hamilton do in the hiring process.

Most of the chiefs said they are only looking at shared hiring for part-time fire fighters and medics, but Hamilton Fire Chief Steve Dawson said it could work for his all full-time staff as well.

“This is in the very preliminary talking stages right now,” he said. “But any time you hire someone you’re going to have to do a background check on them, a polygraph test, a drug screen and a physical agility test, if the agencies can somehow combine these where we accept a medical or background check another department did, if we could combine these it would save everybody a lot of money.”

It could mean some departments might have to change the way they do things and that’s not always as easy as it may sound. About a decade ago the city of Mason and Deerfield Twp. in Warren County began cooperation talks that would have included shared fire houses and other changes. Age old annexation disputes got in the way of progress for years.

Centers said at this point he isn’t sure whether every department within the county might jump on board but it’s up to them to make that call.

“I think for the most part the departments that are capable of adopting portions of the study will,” Centers said. “And the ones that don’t have the resources to do it or are not interested in changing their operations, their policies, their procedures, probably will not.”

The cities of Hamilton, Middletown and Monroe do not employ part-time help and Middletown Fire Chief Paul Lolli said they might be limited in how they can participate.

“Some of that will be cost efficient for us and some of it won’t pertain to us, because it may be — depending on whatever the final rules are — this is just one example that contractually we can’t do it or by civil service you can’t do it, because of the difference between cities, townships and villages,” Lolli said.

The study showed there could be significant savings if all of the county fire departments deploy this practice. The sharing that has been going on to date is a little harder to quantify. Stumpf said several departments just spent $14,000 to buy an apparatus to test fire fighter’s breathing equipment. Oxford Fire Chief John Detherage said to outsource that testing it costs $35 per person. So just considering the 627 full-and-part-time employees in the study, it would cost $21,945 to test each mask every year.

The departments do joint testing of equipment like ladders and bulk purchasing of fire hoses, station supplies, helmets and more. West Chester Fire Chief Rick Prinz said his department and two others just went together on a helmet purchase and saved $52 per helmet, which meant a $1,352 savings just for the township.

Lolli says he saves a lot with the cost sharing they have already done.

“We do some shared purchasing with personal protection equipment and gear, supplies, that is the most beneficial for Middletown,” he said. “I would confidently say we’ve saved over $25,000 a year just in equipment funds.”

The personnel record exchange, so to speak, is something everyone called the most critical piece of the study, other things, like joint scheduling won’t be a priority, according to Detherage, especially since the study said a person might have to be hired to handle it.

“I think that’s something that down the line (they’ll do it),” he said. “It’ll take a lot more effort on our part and a lot more time on our part to get something like that assembled… That’s one of the things we’ll look at in the study, but I don’t how soon it will happen just because there’s so many moving parts.”

Fairfield Twp. Administrator Julie Vonderhaar said she is very impressed with the high level of cooperation the county fire chiefs have displayed and it is a benefit to the entire county.

“By pooling resources you’re saving costs, you’re being more efficient, you’re using shared brain power,” she said. “So I look at it all as a win.”

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