Bainbridge Township is growing and that growth is reflected in the number of calls the Bainbridge Fire Department is responding to on a daily basis, according to Fire Chief Lou An Metz.
“Our calls have gone up 58 percent in the last 10 years and that is a lot,” explained Chief Metz.
In 2012, the department responded to a total of 1,386 service calls including 347 fire calls and 1,039 emergency medical service (EMS) calls.
In 2021, the department responded to 2,045 calls including 568 fire calls.
“So far this year we are up 160 calls over this time last year,” Chief Metz explained.. “We are projecting we will have 2,200 calls this year. The numbers represent an 814-call increase since 2012.”
And with transports today, it is not uncommon for responders to spend an hour or more on a call because of the time spent waiting for beds to free up for patients at the hospitals.
When Chief Metz started as fire chief in 2016, the Bainbridge department staffed three to four people for a 24-hour period and now it is five to six people over that same period.
“We like to have six at the station,” she said. “It allows us to handle three calls at a time.”
Otherwise, the department has to rely on mutual aid from surrounding fire departments from Russell, Auburn, Chagrin Falls, and Aurora, which often results in longer response time, she noted.
Prior to her being hired to the department, it was run by part-time firefighters and paramedics except for Wayne Burge, the full-time assistant chief.
In 2017, the first six full-time people were hired.
Today, it is a full-blown fire department with full and part-time workers, she said, including 18-part-time workers and nearly two dozen full-time people on staff including the chief and assistant chief.
A third full-time person, Bill Lovell, is currently in that role and his duties include conducting fire-prevention activities including sprinkler systems at businesses and enforcing fire codes to reduce fire risks.
“With all the businesses, we needed a full-time person for the job,” Chief Metz said.
Mr. Lovell also reviews plans from businesses with the township building department.
“Hiring him on a full-time basis has reduced the fire risk before a catastrophic fire that could close down a business in the township,” she said.
“It’s important those losses don’t happen, and we don’t lose businesses,” she said.
A high percentage of businesses that sustain a fire loss do not rebuild here. They seek another location outside the township, Chief Metz noted.
And with not enough staffing at the fire station. Asst. Chief Lovell would often be pulled from the fire inspections to work shifts, she said.
The ideal station staffing would be 24 part-time personnel to augment the 16 full-time firefighters, she noted. But there are not enough people applying and that is occurring across the country.
“They are going to full-time jobs. When I came here, 80 percent worked full-time at other fire departments and worked here on their days off. When they got called from their other departments, they had to leave,” Chief Metz said.
“Our part-time staffing became harder to fill, so therefore we had to hire more full-time people,” she added.
In addition to the chief, assistant chief, and fire prevention specialist, there are 16 full-time employees, working 24 on hours, with 48 hours off duty.
“With full timers we have consistency, and we operate in a more consistent manner,” Chief Metz said. “When there are full-time people, they take ownership and a lot of pride in doing it and in what they achieve,” she added, “So more full-time people are needed.”
She also noted that costs of health-care costs of employees as well as fuel and utilities are skyrocketing. “And we took a hit with COVID because some personnel who were working fulltime somewhere else were not able to work part time here because of COVID,” she said. “COVID put a whole new spin on how we managed the staff with part-timers.”
People had to quarantine with illness and labor costs increased a lot, she said. In the ambulance calls, there had to be two people in the back of the squad with COVID calls, and the department had to increase the staffing during that time. A neighboring department could not respond because they were low in staff as well.
“In general, about a third of our calls occur in bunches. It is not unusual that we may get three or four requests for an ambulance or fire truck at the same time,” she said.
In 2016, the department had 300 overlapping or multiple calls, Chief Metz said. This year, by July there were 326 multiple calls. “We are probably going to have 500 overlapping calls this year,” she noted. That means the department will be calling neighboring departments. “We’re fortunate that we have good relations with our neighbors.”
Her goal is that 95 percent of the calls in the township will get a Bainbridge squad responding. “That’s what residents pay us for, to be available,” Chief Metz said.
The costs to the department include replacing safety equipment. “We have saved $3,000 a year to replace gear and protective equipment, paying with carry-over money that was set aside.” she said. “I have to set aside $3,000 per person per year for replacement of safety equipment.”
Costs, however, are skyrocketing. Every employee at the department is outfitted with $10,000 worth of personal protective equipment. Bullet-proof vests cost $1,100 and have to be replaced every five years, she noted.
There are national standards for the replacement and upgrade of personal protective gear and equipment. Turn-out gear is about $3,500 and each person is fitted for two sets. The rate of firefighters with cancer from smoke environments requires that turnout gear is put in a special washer after use which is why two sets are required.
She added that every person has a full physical exam including cancer screening, and department members have health services available to them. “We’ve got to take care of the people we have,” she said. And mental health services are critical, she noted.
“We are also losing people to cancer, heart attacks and strokes. Some gear has carcinogens and that’s why it’s important to get out of that gear as quickly after a call.” Chief Metz said.
In that regard, new types of gear are being designed but it is expensive, she said. “And part of the reason we are not getting the applicants for the jobs is because we are educating them to the risks of health concerns.”
In addition, there has been a population increase in the township, Chief Metz noted. The population was at 11,500 in 2015 and in 2020, it was at 12,893.
“We’ve grown 10 percent since the last census,” she said. There is a significant increase in the number of homes being built and new development at the former Geauga Lake Park property will add to the numbers.
In addition, 20.7 percent of the Bainbridge population is over 65 years old, according to the U.S. Census, often resulting in more calls, Chief Metz noted. The high volume of calls is attributed as well to having the Bainbridge Urgent Care and the Weils, an assisted living facility, in the township.
The department EMS responded 75 times to the Weils so far this year, she said, and 75 times to Urgent Care as well.
And there are also a lot of calls for heroin overdoses with people in traffic, she said.
“We do see a significant number of heroin overdoses considering the size of Bainbridge,” she said. The township also has a lot of traffic from the Route 422 freeway and Route 306. “The roadways contribute to calls, and we get a significant number of accidents because of the highways that run through here,” she noted.
In addition, this year there was a high number of fires of all kinds including houses and cars in Geauga County, Chief Metz said. “We have responded to 98 more calls this year than last year at this time,” she said of the automatic response calls to nearby communities, which help Bainbridge as well.
Bottom line is that Bainbridge has had to hire a lot more people and costs have gone up, Chief Metz noted. “And we are going to have to buy three new ambulances in the next three years, with one a year.” Cost for an ambulance today is about $350,000.
“We also have to upgrade our cardiac monitors and we use EMS billing for that,” Chief Metz said. The overall plan is to take such expenses from an EMS levy, she noted. “We don’t have a permanent stream of funds for EMS. There is only the EMS billing,” she noted.
“An EMS levy would be new for the department. We have never had one. It would be used to cover operating costs for EMS services including salaries and supplies as well as maintenance of equipment and apparatus,” according to Chief Metz. “The fire levy will be used for fire-related expenses such as equipment and apparatus.”
The department has never had an EMS levy earmarked for EMS, however, because it is such a big percentage of what the department does, “We have to have it,” she said. As an example, cardiac monitors cost $40,000 each, and four are needed in the department. Their replacements are coming up within the next five years.
“We try to maintain equipment and we try to look at every way to save and invest in equipment upgrades. And we try to keep personnel on a long-time basis,” she added.
“Now, I think it is reasonable to say, looking at the final figures, we are going to have to seek a levy at some point. It has been 11 years since a levy was approved, and I wanted the present levies to last as long as they can, but in 2023 we’re going to have to evaluate our funding.”
Currently, the fire department receives 7.8 mills in five levies. That includes levies back to 1976 and last year the millage brought in $2,469,123 for fire and EMS services, Chief Metz noted. That number does not increase over the years. Bainbridge taxpayers pay $103.13 for each $100,000 of property value for fire and EMS services.
“In 2023, we hope to get a levy on the ballot. I expect it to last 10 years,” Chief Metz said. “I welcome anyone to come and talk about the fire department and the costs and tour the station anytime.”
The station can be reached by calling (440) 543-9873 or reach Chief Metz directly at (440) 543-8373.