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Playing with fire: OFD fights flames with five

Photo by Lauren Olson, Photography Editor

Oxford Fire Department scrambles to serve region with a limited budget

An alarm cuts through the Oxford Fire Department late on a Friday night. The sound jolts five men from nervous sleep. A dispatcher's voice rings from the PA system and tells the crew where to go.

They are all tired. Some are working the latter half of 48-hour shifts. They try to sleep, but as soon as they shut their eyes, the alarm sounds. It isn't a pleasant noise.

Once they're awake though, they are alert, their movements deft and practiced. Three of them load up an ambulance and set off. The other two stay behind, in case there is another call.

This is a typical weekend night for OFD. Because those nights are busier, five firefighters are on duty. During the week, there are just four.

Last year, the department responded to 2,274 calls - quite a feat considering the limited number of people on duty each night.

OFD has 66 employees and just one of their firefighters is full-time - Chief John Detherage.

This makes Miami University the only Division 1 school without a full-time fire department in its town.

OFD's budget can't support full-time employees, or provide health insurance to the part-timers. Because of this, Oxford firefighters have to work other jobs as well.

"I'm not sure people realize what all these guys do," Detherage said. "How many hours they put in to try to make a living doing something they are really passionate about and they really love."

Passion, though, can't always make up for a lack of people.

"It's definitely playing the odds," Detherage said. "We're definitely lucky. You can only do so much with four or five guys."

And while OFD may be under-staffed, there is no shortage of things for them to do. The department responds to calls for fire, fire alarms, emergency medical service, hazardous material spillage and carbon monoxide.

"About anything you can think of," Detherage said. "We go after it."

Miami senior and volunteer firefighter Zach Butler said this is exactly why a well-staffed, well-funded department is essential for the community.

"People don't call 911 and request medical assistance unless they believe it is an emergency," Butler said. "Fire departments that are understaffed and underfunded cannot realistically meet community demands. Could you imagine calling 911 and have no idea when and if someone would show up?"

While Detherage said OFD does an exemplary job meeting the needs of the community, even just a few more people on duty would allow the department to better their service.

"If we had eight guys all the time, we would have a more efficient operation," Detherage said.

The problem, however, boils down to funding.

"Do we have the money coming in right now to support that? It's not sustainable," he said.

City Manager Doug Elliott said the lack of funds is due to various cutbacks at the state level. While he would like to hire more people, he said the money just isn't there.

"I've been in government for over 35 years and you can always make the case for more resources, but you have to do the best you can with what you have," he said.

OFD's operating budget is about $1.5 million and they are the sole provider of EMS service for an area of roughly 53 square miles (this includes Oxford, Oxford Township and Milford Township). Oxford Police Department, on the other hand, has an operating budget of around $3.5 million and 40 full-time employees. They are one of three police forces in the area.

Detherage, though, said he understands the city's predicament.

"I understand that you can't take away from everything else in the city to try and fund the fire department," he said. "Everything else has to function too. If you said, 'We're going to take $1 million out of the police budget and put it in the fire budget,' you would cripple them."

Detherage said it has taken a while for OPD's budget to get to where it is. The fire department, he said, will need to go through a similar progression in the future.

"I think that's something that you'll see evolve here," he said. "Maybe not as fast as I would like, but eventually it's going to happen, it's going to have to."

As understaffed as they are, OFD seems to be on a different projection than other fire departments in the area.

When Elliott began as city manager in 2007, the department was entirely volunteer. Since, it has progressed from three part-time people during the day, to four and five part-timers all the time.

Even this transition was a stress on the city's budget. Elliott decided to raise the income tax .25 percent in order to fund the new positions. Today, that quarter percent generates most of OFD's operating budget.

Elliott pointed out this expansion came at a time when other fire departments were cutting positions. Recently, he said, the city of Middletown laid off 11 full-time firefighters.

"I can't say this is the best time in the world to be trying to build up a fire department," Detherage said. "It has made it very tough."

Despite budget constraints, Elliott said there is a possibility of additional OFD positions soon. He presents his proposed budget to City Council Oct. 1 and said he has recommended the addition of more full-time supervisors. But nothing is guaranteed.

"We're still working those numbers, but of course that will add to our cost," he said.

Until then, OFD will continue to operate with four or five people on duty. And, many times that number is adequate. Although, there are times - like the Fiji house fire in 2013 - when they simply don't have enough people.

In these cases, the department has to use something called "mutual aid." This alerts nearby forces to the situation and asks for their help. The only problem with that, Detherage said, is that it can take up to 20 minutes for another department to arrive on the scene. Because of the petroleum-based materials used in modern furniture and houses, and its tendency to burn quickly, every minute is crucial.

For now, Detherage said, being under-funded and overworked is all part of the job - a job his firefighters will do regardless of the conditions, because they love what they do.

"When it comes right down to it, if you don't enjoy helping people, you won't do this very long," he said. "It's just too damn hard work."