BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — When Ron Wedge wanted to join the Maumee Fire Division 16 years ago, he was on a waiting list for two years – just to become a paid-on-call “volunteer” firefighter, responding when he was available.
“We had 48 people on the roster,” recalled Wedge, who is now a full-time Maumee paramedic.
Now that roster of firefighters, who respond from home to structure fires, accidents, car fires and other emergencies not handled by paramedics, has dwindled to 21. At the same time, call volume has gone up 40 percent in the past decade, to 2,561 calls in 2022.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the demands of jobs and families have taken their toll on those paid-on-call firefighters, and most prefer a job that’s full time with benefits, said Maumee Fire Chief Brandon Loboschefski. And with a growing city, counting on volunteers to respond to the station and board a truck to head out on a call can be problematic – adding crucial minutes to the response time.
“It’s no longer sustainable. Other departments like Monclova Township and Sylvania have transitioned to full time as they’ve grown, while Maumee has lagged behind. The volunteer model is going by the wayside and is primarily used in rural areas. We need to go to a model that includes 24-hour staffing to do the job right,” Loboschefski said. “It’s great to see the city grow, but any time you build a building, a doctor’s office or hotels, it adds to our calls. We just don’t have the staff to respond as efficiently and as effectively as we should.”
On Tuesday, November 7, Maumee voters will decide on a 5.6-mill levy to generate $2.9 million to create 24-hour staffing for faster and safer service to residents. If passed, it would be the first time Maumee has ever had a dedicated fire levy like other area departments.
“Most importantly, 100 percent of the levy funds can only be used for fire division expenses,” Loboschefski said. “Levy funds cannot be used for any other purpose in the city.”
Passage of the levy would enable the department to cross-train personnel and bring on new full-time and part-time firefighters to supplement the two paramedics who staff the Lucas County Life Squad. Because of the pension system used when paramedics were hired, these paramedics – even if certified as firefighters – cannot respond to fire calls for now. Loboschefski said the city is in the process of transitioning those paramedics who want to become dual-trained into a new system, but it will cost 10 percent more per employee. Some are too invested in the pension system or are ready to retire.
Some paramedics are certified firefighters who pick up extra shifts to cover calls, but with the shortage of paid-on-call personnel responding, Maumee often finds itself in situations where the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standard of 15 firefighters for a structure fire is not met.
Reliance on mutual aid from other departments has also grown. Maumee has great relationships with Toledo, Monclova Township and Springfield Township, but has been unable to reciprocate as often because of lack of staffing.
If the levy passes, Loboschefski knows he’ll have to aggressively seek out candidates to fill positions. All area departments have struggled to find enough candidates, which is why cross-training and adequately paying staff will go a long way to building the department.
“We do have a gem with the people who are here,” said paramedic and firefighter Nikki Heckman. “I know the citizens appreciate us.”
She noted that other departments are having a hard time too, but that some candidates – for now – hesitate on joining Maumee because of concerns about whether the levy will pass. Earlier this year, Maumee placed the same levy on a May ballot, and that failed.
Since then, Loboschefski and the city has concentrated more effort on answering questions through a variety of mediums, including hosting several community forums for residents to learn more and see firsthand how the department runs and what its needs are.
“I’m pleased by the amount of constructive conversation happening,” Loboschefski said during the October 10 meeting. “It’s important for people to understand the challenges and how we work. We want that transparency and people to ask questions.”
Often, the first question comes down to money, such as, “Why can’t Maumee take the money from its existing property taxes?”
Maumee receives just 5 percent of a Maumee resident’s total tax payment, and those funds are divided up for all services, including public works, refuse collection and safety services. It costs $3.9 million a year to operate the fire/EMS services, including $2.6 million for personnel alone. That is projected to grow to nearly $5 million in the next five years – as call volume and costs go up.
The other question is: “What will it cost me?”
For each $100,000 in property value, it will cost $16.00 a month.
Homeowners can use the Lucas County Auditor’s Real Estate Information System (AREIS), https://co.lucas.oh.us/377/AREIS-Information, to see how the levy will affect their own taxes. Property taxes are based on the property’s assessed value, which is 35 percent of what it might sell for.
Two more community forums to answer questions on the levy are scheduled for Saturday, October 28 at 10:00 a.m. at the fire station, 220 Illinois Ave., and on Thursday, November 2 at 7:00 p.m. at the Maumee Branch Library, 501 River Rd.