Feb. 26–SPRINGFIELD — The city of Springfield has struggled to recruit and retain police officers and firefighters in recent years, which city and union leaders say could lead to re-examining city hiring practices.
At its civil service test for prospective firefighters in January of 2013, Springfield had 144 applications and 113 who took the exam, according to personnel department records. Last month, the city saw 32 people apply for open positions with Springfield/Fire Rescue Division and had 28 take the test — a 77 percent decrease in applications and a 75 percent drop in examinations.
The Springfield Police Division has seen a similar drop in applicants. In 2008, the police division saw 210 applicants and 167 people take its civil service exam. Last year, that number dropped to 124 applicants and 101 test-takers — a more than 40 percent decrease in both applicants and examinations.
Twenty years ago, the city saw as many as 300 people for civil service tests, Springfield Personnel Director Jeff Rodgers said.
While the jobs include training, the city isn’t offering as attractive wage packages as it has in the past, Rodgers said.
“We’ve had a number of years (without raises) and we’ve fallen behind in terms of what our wage rates are,” he said.
The public is also thinking twice about getting into police and fire service after what’s been happening nationally, Rodgers said.
“It’s a combination of our local economy and the portrayal of police officers by local politicians and the media,” said Sgt. Doug Pergram, President of the Springfield Command Officers Association, which represents 17 sergeants and 7 lieutenants at the police division. “We’ve taken a pretty serious beating over the last few years and I think it’s definitely affected the number of people who want to be police officers.”
There were between 500 and 600 applicants for jobs at the police division when Pergram took the test in 1996, requiring two waves of testing, he said.
At the same time, both the police and fire divisions are also losing officers and firefighters to other nearby, higher-paying departments, as well as retirements, local leaders said.
Of 41 departments in central and southwest Ohio last year, the Springfield Police Division had the fifth-lowest top-level pay at about $58,000 annually, according to State Employee Relations Board contract records. The top-level pay at other departments in the region, included Whitehall at $87,000 and Kettering at $84,000 annually.
After 18 years on the job, IAFF Springfield Professional Firefighters President Andy Rigsbee has never seen co-workers leave for other departments at such a high rate, he said. A firefighter/paramedic in Springfield tops out at about $58,000 annually, while the same position tops out at about $83,000 in Kettering.
“We’re bleeding talent,” Rigsbee said. “We’re seeing people leave left and right.”
If the numbers continue to decline for fire hiring, the city could remove its paramedic requirements for hiring, Rodgers said.
“We may have no choice,” he said.
The police division has used a lateral entryprogram in recent years to fill its police officer vacancies, Rodgers said. It allows the department to hire sworn police officers from other departments who have already received peace officer training.
“We get them on the street quicker and that’s important to us,” he said.
Springfield City Commissioner Kevin O’Neill supports examining hiring practices, including removing the paramedic requirement for firefighters.
“If we’re only getting 27 people to try to hire nine people by June, we’ve got a problem,” O’Neill said.
He also supports examining lateral entry for firefighters, a policy similar to what’s currently used by the police division.
“You have to put that tool in your toolbox and use it when your back is against the wall,” O’Neill said.
After applying for a position with the police or fire division, an employee is required to take a civil service test. If they pass the test, a prospective employee will then be placed on a list for possible hiring.
The Springfield Fire/Rescue Division’s hiring process is different from the police division. In order to be hired, candidates must first be certified paramedics, who are then trained to be firefighters, Springfield Fire Chief Nick Heimlich said.
The Fire/Rescue Division had 28 applicants take its most recent civil service test, according to city records.
“That’s a low number for us to be processing right out the chute,” Rodgers said. “It’s a concern.”
Of the list, 15 were not certified as paramedics, he said.
“It creates a bit of a barrier,” Heimlich said.
The rule was created intentionally because of the cost and amount of time it took to train new employees, Rodgers said. The city knew it would have an effect on the number of people applying for jobs.
“It’s been more acute here in recent years,” Rodgers said.
This year, the division will have at least 11 vacancies in June, Rodgers said. It could see the largest class of firefighters hired at one time since Heimlich began his time with the division 30 years ago.
Other factors hindering recruitment include pay and what people hear in the media about the profession, he said.
Five of the recent departures are young firefighters leaving for higher-paying jobs at other departments, Heimlich said.
“They’re going to departments where the pay for firefighters/officers make is what (Assistant Fire Chief Brian Miller) and I earn,” Heimlich said. “That’s what we’re competing against and we’re losing good people to it.”
By eliminating the paramedic requirement, it could encourage prospective employees to get their foot in the door, Heimlich said. However, it could lead to retention problems in the future because more firefighters will leave for other jobs and through retirements, he said.
Firefighter training can be completed at no cost, Heimlich said. However, paramedic training has different costs associated with it depending on where a person is in the educational process. The division must also decide how those firefighters are paid during training and if other people will be needed to fill those gaps, he said.
“All those costs add up,” Heimlich said.
In the past, there were several reasons for firefighters leaving the division, such as people going back to their hometown or a bigger department with a greater chance of advancement, Rigsbee said. Now, others are leaving due to the city’s financial instability, even with the city charter’s voter-approved mandate that Springfield must have 127 firefighters and 124 police officers — numbers that can only be changed at the polls. When the numbers were set by voters in 1990, the city’s population was about 70,000. Now, the city’s population has dipped just slightly below 60,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“They feel like their jobs aren’t as secure as they used to be,” Rigsbee said. “We all know that if the city’s financial picture gets bleak enough, eventually they’ll have to go back out to the voters and say ‘We can no longer afford to have this many firefighters and police officers’.”
‘Taken its toll’
The Springfield Police Division currently has 122 officers on paper, but it will take several months to train nine recently-hired officers, Police Chief Steve Moody said. The police division expects to hire several more officers before the next training class begins in March.
Since last May, the police division has lost seven officers to other departments in the region. Three other officers may also leave for other agencies, he said.
“They took five to 10 years of experience somewhere else where they’re paid at a higher rate,” Moody said.
Represented employees haven’t had pay increases for six of the last eight years, he said.
“It’s taken its toll,” Moody said.
Another nine officers retired from the division, he said. Many of the officers hired when a police levy passed in 1992 are starting to hit retirement age for years of service, Moody said.
“That’s a lot of historical knowledge that left,” he said.
About half of the 80 people who passed the civil service test last year will be processed as possible candidates for employment, Rodgers said. Springfield could hire as many as 12 new officers this summer if the levy were to pass in May, including officers for the Safe Streets Task Force, he said.
Moody spent lots of time marketing the test to colleges and universities, as well as through social justice groups and local churches, he said.
“We wanted to bring some diversity in, but there’s such competition for the best and the brightest,” Moody said. “We’re not just in competition with other local agencies, but the state and the feds as well.”
It’s tough to attract quality talent to serve in the community with the way policing has been portrayed in the media the last few years, Moody said.
‘We’ve got a problem’
Previously, firefighters were required to move to Clark County if they were hired full-time, Heimlich said.
“Once I do that, I’m more inclined to stay here,” Heimlich said.
That requirement was eliminated by the state legislature in the last decade, Heimlich said, which allowed firefighters to live in Clark County or any adjacent counties.
That’s led to more talent coming from areas without full-time departments, he said. Now that those departments are growing into full-time agencies, those firefighters are leaving to be closer to home or make more money.
“They’re growing and hiring has stepped up,” Heimlich said. “At some point in the next year or two, all of that will settle into a new norm.”
The city must go back to the drawing board and navigate relationships that can create a longer path for recruiting locals, he said.
“They already live here and want to stay here and are looking for a way to make that happen,” Heimlich said.
It’s important for people to understand many police officers are working here because it’s their home, City Commissioner Karen Duncan said. If you don’t have ties to the community, it’s easier leave for another job, Duncan said.
“Why not go where they can make more money?” Duncan asked at this month’s commission retreat. “It’s something that we need to address as a community and as a commission.”
Commissioners must also keep that in mind when discussing eliminating other benefits such as longevity benefits, Mayor Warren Copeland said.
“It has consequences in terms of keeping good people,” Copeland said.
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