Ohio’s Training-Test Rule Trips Up Volunteer Firefighters

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A state law that was meant to keep firefighters up-to-date on training is costing some departments their volunteers.

The 2008 law requires all Ohio firefighters to earn recertification every three years by passing a test. Those who let their certification lapse for more than 18 months also must attend 36 hours of retraining. Before 2008, firefighters never had to be recertified.

Most fire departments have had no trouble keeping their firefighters certified, officials said, but some of the state’s smallest departments, many of which have only volunteers, report continued trouble. About 70 percent of firefighters in Ohio are volunteers, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council.

For example, four of the 21 firefighters in the Zaleski Volunteer Fire Department lost certification and didn’t discover the problem until almost a year after the policy had gone into effect, Fire Chief James Shiveley said.

The four had among them 90 years of firefighting experience. Only one has returned. Two opted to retire rather than renew their certifications, and another is working on recertification.

“We’re a volunteer fire department. People work 40 to 50 hours a week,” Shiveley said. “They don’t have time to check up on certifications and paperwork. The training is hard enough.”

Zaleski is about 75 miles southeast of Columbus, and departments in southeastern Ohio are having the most problems, said Jason Pollitt, president of the Ohio State Firefighters Association.

Shiveley said many smaller departments aren’t getting the message about policy changes, which often are communicated by e-mail. Southeastern Ohio has the lowest percentage of households with Internet access in the state, according to the nonprofit group Connect Ohio.

“These gentlemen then don’t use the computer. If that’s the only communications they’re sending, well, we’re not getting them,” Shively said.

Pollitt said firefighters are informed about their certifications by both e-mail and postcard. They can take the test online or at the firehouse.

Volunteers undergo a 36-hour basic-training course to get certified and must attend monthly training sessions and meetings. Firefighters who miss the deadline cost their department $500 for the course to recertify them.

Shiveley said his department is now tracking its members’ certifications, something he thinks the state should be doing.

China Dodley, spokeswoman for the Ohio Division of Emergency Medical Services, said firefighters had ample opportunities to get accustomed to the policy. “(EMS) spent a whole year after the law was passed really reaching out to make sure people really were aware of the new policy,” she said.

Dodley said the division sent fliers and held town-hall meetings.

She said 90,000 firefighters were certified in Ohio before the new policy took effect, and 51,000 were recertified immediately afterward. She said that many who were listed as active firefighters were deceased or retired.

Since then, 1,400 people have taken the test. Dodley didn’t know how many were new firefighters rather than veterans who missed the deadline and were trying to get recertified.

The Columbus Division of Fire has not had problems recertifying the 30-some volunteers in its auxiliary division because it has the money and technology to keep up on the latest trends, Capt. James Lewis said. Still, turnover is often high among volunteers, and it is harder than ever to retain them, he said.

“It’s tougher and tougher to be a volunteer firefighter. Just the time involved,” he said. “We’re busier than ever before, and with the economy the way it is, you’re trying to work extra hours just to make a buck.”

Tristan Navera is a fellow in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism Statehouse News Bureau.