PERRYSBURG — Mayor Tom Mackin took the blame for the way volunteer firefighters were informed about the elimination of the program and their jobs.
Phasing out of the part-paid firefighters, who are referred to as volunteers, was decided at the Jan. 24 city council personnel committee meeting. The cuts were presented by the Safety Director Patrick Jones and Interim Fire Chief Tom Granata, as a cost saving measure. The costs for training and certifications of the part-paid firefighters exceed their use for the department.
Michelle Bittner and Jenny Tharpe, wives of two of the firefighters who lost their jobs, showed up at the Fe. 7 council meeting with some sharp words for the administration.
“They were all called in to deputy acting chief Granata’s office on Sunday and told they had to turn in all their gear by Monday and they were done,” Bittner said. “When asked why, how, he had no answer. He had no information as to how they could keep their status and work for the city.”
The women asked why the change had been made and why no notice of the cuts had been given.
Mackin called it an administrative decision, thanked them for their service and added an apology.
“It sounds like the most frustrating part is how it was done,” Mackin said. “That is a part we will own and we could have done better.”
Jones said that Perrysburg is moving away from volunteers as they are a full-time professional fire organization. The cuts were also to be phased out.
Between the two fire stations, there were only five volunteer firefighters left. The role had been diminishing as the needs for EMS have increased, which are the majority of the calls. Jones said that they were each working less than 12 hours, on average, per quarter.
Of those five, two will be remaining with the department as part-time workers. Those two have been putting in the most time working on the department accreditation process. They will receive additional training and eventually move into new non-firefighting roles as community risk reduction and accreditation specialists.
Granata believes that they will be needed for between 15 to 20 hours per week.
At the committee meeting Fuller asked if a single full-time position would be more appropriate. Granata said that the department was not yet there with enough consistent time for the roles.
The cuts were not considered by Human Resources Director Kelly Chalfant to be an action that would require approval by council. The item was not on the agenda for the meeting, but it was reported in the minutes of the personnel committee meeting.
Councilman Kevin Fuller, a committee member, later explained that Jones and Granata bringing the issue to the committee was merely making them aware of what was happening, because the actions were administrative functions.
The part-paid positions would also become a liability issue for lack of continued training.
The committee approved the change on a unanimous 3-0 vote.
“They don’t cost a lot for the city, because they only come when there is a need,” Bittner said. “When we use material aid, they are here and they are ready. They live in the city.”
Tharpe said that her husband is only 40 and hoped to continue with the city.
Councilman Cory Kuhlman, personnel committee chair, suggested that Granata be present at the next committee meeting for questions.
Bittner called it “poorly handled,” and said that all five firefighters had worked for the city for a long time. Tharpe’s husband held the fewest years in the role, at 13.
“The problem is that they were told none of this,” Bittner said.
Councilman Tim McCarthy, also on the committee, had some thoughts about possibly still including the volunteers, especially when it is in activities they have already been doing but do not involve so much potential liability.
“I understand what the administration was trying to do, but I wish it could have been handled a little bit better,” McCarthy said in a followup interview. “I’ve been thinking since, particularly about (Tharpe’s husband), who participates in parades in his turnout gear, for the kids, so they are not afraid of firefighters. Maybe there’s a way we could have something like that. You know there’s a sheriff’s auxiliary.”
He said that those are just his ideas and they have not yet been discussed with the committee.