Chief: Ongoing firefighter shortage leaves Athens vulnerable

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An ongoing firefighter shortage in the state of Ohio has left multiple areas, especially the southeast, vulnerable to alarming damages, said Athens Chief of Fire, Robert Rymer.

Athens City Fire truck
Athens firefighters on duty take a quick break between calls on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2022. [Andre Norrils | Athens MidDay]
With the current population of Athens being estimated at about 40,000 people, there should be about 10 to 12 firefighters on duty every day. There are currently only four.

“We’re having to triage calls because we have two or three coming in at the same time. Which call is more dangerous? Which one do we take right now?” Rymer said.

Unfortunately for Athens residents, this has been an ongoing issue since the 1970s. The main igniter of this issue has been funding, or the lack thereof. Due to about 50 percent of properties being tax exempt, the city of Athens gets little to none of their funding from that route.

The department wants to combat this issue by instating a student fee. Rymer said about 40 percent of the department calls are going to university owned buildings.

According to an article from The Post, Rymer proposed the $50 fee to the Student Senate back in February. If it ends up passing, Ohio University will set the precedent of being the first fire department to have a fee of this category in the northwestern territory.

Although this fee would not completely solve their funding issue, it would still benefit the department and push them in the right direction. Rymer also is pushing to inform more students about using a fire extinguisher and overall fire safety to hopefully not have to get the department involved.

Similar issues are also occurring at the Richland Fire Department. Brody Davis, Captain of the Richland Fire Department said he believes another issue is a lack of volunteers.

“Nobody wants to do anything for free anymore, and that’s really how these smaller counties have survived for all these years,” he said. “It shouldn’t be all about pay. It needs to be more (about) that self pride, the community pride and everybody working together to achieve one goal.”

Getting the younger generation to volunteer is a really big issue, Davis added. With the current volunteers getting too old to continue their services, the lack of younger volunteers has created a large gap needing to be filled urgently.

Davis continues to stress the urgency of having volunteers and staff at the station at all times.

“It could be somebody’s life that is at risk because we have to have a twenty minute response time because you just can’t get somebody,” he said.

Matthew Odenthal is a 19 year-old volunteer firefighter in York township. When asked what motivated him to become a volunteer firefighter, he said he “liked helping people in need.”

“There’s not too many young guys coming in and doing this type of work,” he said. “If someone doesn’t do it then who is?”

Odenthal was unsure why the number of volunteers had gone down and encouraged others in his generation to consider working in the field.

On paper, the idea of paying everyone rather than having volunteers is a lot more appetizing. However, the issue for a lot of these smaller counties is that they rely on volunteers because they cannot afford to pay people.

Brody Davis claims that he’s seen departments operate on an annual budget of less than $25,000 and hopes that more people will want to help the departments and community by volunteering.

For those who are interested in or are considering becoming a firefighter, Davis encourages them to reach out to their local fire department and come visit the station, as well as taking classes at a local career center.

You can also apply to the Athens Fire Department and get more information on their website.