Metro-East News

As O’Fallon continues to grow, should it switch to a full-time fire department?

Should the O’Fallon Fire Department go full-time? Fire chief weighs in.

O’Fallon is growing but still has a volunteer, or paid-on-call, fire department. Fire Chief Brent Saunders discusses whether there is a need to go full-time.
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O’Fallon is growing but still has a volunteer, or paid-on-call, fire department. Fire Chief Brent Saunders discusses whether there is a need to go full-time.

Between two new hospitals, 150 new homes, a new state-of-the-art recreational complex, not to mention a 44-square-mile coverage area, the O’Fallon Fire Department has a lot to protect.

But the 50-person department remains a volunteer, or paid-on-call, fire department. Volunteer fire departments differ from full-time departments, which hire career firefighters who are paid a salary and receive benefits.

Volunteer O’Fallon firefighters receive $6 per call, even if it lasts hours, and an additional $2 goes into a retirement fund, according to Chief Brent Saunders. Volunteers are also expected to attend training weekly to become experts in overcoming challenges that are a far cry from a burning building. They train to respond to active shooters, hazardous materials, civil disturbances and weapons of mass destruction, among other threats.

And they’ll check a beeping smoke alarm or make sure a child’s car seat is properly installed.

In short, the fire chief says it’s the dedication, not the pay that keeps firefighters volunteering.

Despite the firefighters’ dedication to their jobs, Saunders says city officials are constantly evaluating the needs of a growing community. Since 2008, the department has grown, hiring more staff and adding daytime crews. The number of station houses has grown to four, three in O’Fallon and one in Shiloh, with another being considered for the city’s east corridor.

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O’Fallon’s fire and EMS services at headquartered at this facility on Taylor Road. Calvin Anderson/For the News-Democrat

“We have a variety of shifts and talents, which makes it easier,” Saunders said.

For the past three years, the department has kept track of the numbers to see if a full-time department would become necessary. But a full-time department comes with a cost. A minimum-staffed department with average salaries for the area would cost taxpayers at least $4 million more annually, Saunders said. The department’s budget for 2018 is just under $2 million, 20 percent of which goes toward personnel costs. The department employs four full-time staffers — the chief, an administrative assistant, a fire safety educator and an operations manager — in addition to 46 volunteer firefighters.

Can we provide the services that our citizens expect and can we keep up with the growth? That’s what we continue to review. What do we need to do to stay ahead of the curve?

O’Fallon Fire Chief Brent Saunders

“Can we provide the services that our citizens expect and can we keep up with the growth? That’s what we continue to review,” Saunders said. “What do we need to do to stay ahead of the curve?”

For now, the department is still ahead of the curve, says Mayor Herb Roach.

“We take a great deal of pride in the capabilities and accomplishments of our fire department and its leadership and the rest of our public safety staff,” Roach said in an email. “Having less than a full-time fire department certainly doesn’t mean that our fire department is deficient in the services they offer.”

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This framed collage of O’Fallon Fire Department staffers dedicates the 125th anniversary of the department, from 1891 to 2016. Calvin Anderson For the News-Democrat

Insurance Services Offices, Inc., a group that provides statistics to insurance companies, recently upgraded the O’Fallon department’s rating, putting it in the top 15 percent of departments in Illinois, the mayor said.

Unlike other city fire departments, O’Fallon has a fully staffed EMS department separate from the fire department, the mayor said, freeing up firefighters to deal with fire calls.

The city’s relatively new construction and modern building codes prevent fires from happening at all, the chief said, lightening the burden on firefighters. Only 1 to 2 percent of their calls each year are for structure fires, while false alarms make up 35 to 40 percent of calls annually, Saunders said. The department responds to between 900 and 1,000 calls per year, numbers that have remained consistent for the past four years, though the chief spoke at a town hall meeting recently about an unusual spike in false-alarm calls.

In coming years, the city could grow. City officials are considering annexing and developing land around a new exit from Interstate 64 to Rieder Road on the city’s east side. Development there would add at least 1,500 acres of land for the department to protect, while continuing development at the McKendree Metro Rec Plex will also add to the city’s eastern corridor.

We’re prepared for it. We plan all the time.

O’Fallon Fire Chief Brent Saunders

But until the need arises, the chief said, the department will continue to protect its residents as a volunteer department, saving taxpayers millions of dollars annually. Even with the new St. Elizabeth’s Hospital opening in November, there hasn’t been a noticeable increase in calls, Saunders said.

“We haven’t seen a shift or a gap, but we’re waiting for it. We’re prepared for it. We plan all the time,” Saunders said.

Kelsey Landis: 618-239-2110, @kelseylandis

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