An Athens Fire Department ladder truck is parked in Station 1 on Columbus Avenue. Dec. 1, 2022| Photo by Sophia Young For The Post

Stretched thin

Published Jan. 18, 2023

Athens Fire operates under pressure

By SOPHIA YOUNG | For The Post

Eight years ago, a devastating fire wreaked havoc on a row of uptown buildings, causing more than 60 firefighters from five nearby fire departments to rush to the scene. A concerned caller reported to 911 seeing flames from inside the store Kismet around 4 a.m., followed by a call from residents trapped on the roof of an apartment building above as flames licked the walls nearby.

What became known as the Union Street fire was a nearly 12-hour battle by first responders with the scorching blaze. It left nearly 40 university students displaced, eight responders injured and six businesses defaced. Though first responders evacuated the area relatively quickly with little to no harm, the fire was not declared fully extinguished until almost 3:30 p.m.

The Union Street fire tested the Athens Fire Department and surrounding departments' capabilities, stretching staff and resources to their limits. The incident drew attention to the local department, which continues to be understaffed and underfunded, and the extreme risk to life and property should a similar event happen again.

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Photo courtesy of Todd Spires

Todd Spires, a now 30-year employee of the Athens Fire Department, helps extinguish the 2014 Union Street fire, which encompassed five buildings. The fire damaged six businesses and displaced nearly 40 university students. Nov. 16, 2014

In addition to responding to fire and fire risks, the department responds to emergency calls and water rescues, engages in fire prevention education, helps inspect local businesses and maintains stations and equipment. With more than 6,400 households, 1,000 businesses and 24,000 residents within the Athens departments' range, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data, such responsibilities are no small feat for the 23-person staff.

However, within the cramped yet cozy stations resides a group of men dedicated to the community and each other.

Todd Spires, one of the firefighters who helped extinguish the Union Street blaze, has worked with AFD for 30 years. Originally from Lancaster, he said he applied for the job because of the excellent benefits and pension. This helped care for the family he started at age 18 with his high school girlfriend, now wife. However, he has found a second family within the department.

"I spend more time with these guys than I do my wife," Spires said.

When the men aren't responding to calls in the city or performing other required tasks, they do all the things one might expect in a second home. They clean the space they take pride in and sit around the community table talking about their wives and kids.

Some can be found watching the news on the flat screen in the living area while some of the newer academy graduates pour over maps of the city and university sprawled out on a table, memorizing every street in preparation for their exam.

The firefighters of Athens meet the demands of their job with commitment, but it is an occupation with an increasingly heavy burden.

Short staffing

AFD currently has two stations: the headquarters at Station 1 on Columbus Road and Station 2 on Richland Avenue. A minimum of two firefighters staff each station at one time, allowing the department to meet Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards requiring two firefighters to enter a structure while two stand by outside when responding to a call.

When a call warrants a greater response team, other local fire departments send supporting staff and equipment. AFD has mutual aid agreements with every fire department in Athens County, allowing the department to receive assistance from nearby departments when needed and vice versa. The department gave or received 74 mutual aid responses in 2021, according to the 2021 annual report.

Despite the mutual aid agreement, it takes time for off-duty staff and other departments to respond to a situation, Athens Fire Chief Robert Rymer said. Rymer, an Athens native, has worked at the department for over 29 years, serving as chief since March 2014, and has been dealing with short-staffing ever since.

"If you don't see any big pillars of smoke, we're doing it right," Rymer said. "Knock on wood, we've been lucky enough that nobody has died in the fires, whether it's us or civilians. But it's difficult."

Spires echoed Rymer's sentiment, saying the small team is responsible for all aspects of rescue, whereas larger departments normally have specially trained teams. A few firefighters who are first on the scene may be responsible for three roles at once.

“It's unsafe. We've been super fortunate that nobody has gotten hurt really bad. I think we tried to use caution, but you know, when there's flames shooting out a window or something like that, you just do what you got to do.”-Todd Spires

While AFD's staffing may not have changed since the '70s and '80s, its coverage certainly has, Rymer said. Call volume has nearly tripled since 1993 and building space has increased from 10 million square feet to 22.2 million square feet today.

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Photo by Sophia Young

An american flag made of fire hoses hangs in Athens Fire Department Station 1 on Columbus Ave. Dec. 1, 2022

As a result of the short-staffing, many Athens firefighters often work overtime. Spires said that one employee worked over 1,000 hours of overtime in 2022 and some worked multiple overtime shifts per pay period.

The department also handles tasks like checking all fire hydrants in the city and making sure businesses have adequate exit signs, fire extinguishers and more. Rymer explained firefighters test their own equipment, including 14,000 feet of hose from the trucks.

Rymer explained one of his men said he was concerned about getting all of the fire hydrants tested last year. After returning to the station one day, he said, "every time we go hook up to a hydrant, we start flowing water, boom, we get called out to an alarm … we have to shut the hydrant back down."

Rymer said in an ideal situation, he would have 10 people on duty per day with a full roster of close to 45 firefighters. However, those numbers nearly double his current staff. He said he also hopes to one day hire someone in a designated inspector position who would be able to help complete inspections without being called off.

Despite being stretched thin on resources, the department and firefighters still engage with the community through fire safety education and outreach. In late fall, men from both stations drove their massive red engines to meet a class of giggling young children at Blooming View Montessori Academy and talk about their jobs and what to do in case of a fire.

Tyler Wilson, a new probationary firefighter who graduated from the Ohio Fire Academy at the end of October, dressed in full gear boots-to-helmet gear in front of the class while Spires talked about equipment and fire safety practices.

Wilson wore a wide grin on his face as he took the equipment back off, displaying the rush of excitement he feels every time he gets into gear.

Ohio University Calls

Another Friday night means another fire alarm set off in a freshman dorm.

With Ohio University comprising both a large portion of the population and buildings in Athens, a significant percentage of calls to the fire department originate from university property.

A 1996 study of the department by Fitzpatrick and Associates found 27.5% of calls were to the university. According to the 2021 annual department report, that number has grown to 34%, and Rymer attributed 40% of calls over the past five years to the university.

“We get that misconception– people say, 'Oh, it's a false alarm. Well, yes and no. It depends on what you call a false alarm. Most of the time, it is a detector activation due to a reason.”-Fire Chief Robert Rymer

Various stimuli can set off alarms on campus with common ones, particularly in residence halls, being aerosol hair products, burnt food in a microwave, vaping or smoking and more. While a visible fire or immediate danger may not be present, the alarm is still triggered, signaling a response. Rymer said the age of the alarm systems in several older buildings on campus can contribute to more frequent alarms, though in recent years, some have been replaced.

When students are in Athens, some months average at least one call to campus per day. In September of 2017, a peak of 78 alarms went off in campus buildings, triggering AFD response.

Several of the firefighters routinely joke about what sets off the alarms in dorms on campus. Around 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights they expect, like clockwork, to visit a South Green dorm due to an alarm triggered by hairspray or heat tools like curling irons or straighteners as students get ready to go out. With every incoming freshman class, there is the inevitable microwave macaroni burnt because no water was added.

"I had one kid, it was his room (that triggered an alarm), standing there, and I said, 'how did you think that macaroni was going to cook?" Spires said.

Jokes aside, regardless of the cause or immediate danger, AFD responds to every university call in minutes as if there could be a real emergency.

Should a serious fire occur on campus, it could require a massive response by the fire department.

The 2021 annual report referenced a 1997 staffing study recommending 24 firefighters respond to a dorm fire. The National Fire Protection Association standards recommend 15 firefighters on the scene in the first eight minutes of any two-story residential fire.

Since most students are not local taxpayers, little funding comes from a population heavily relying on the department. To help bridge the gap and expand the department's capabilities, Rymer, in collaboration with the OU Student Senate, introduced the idea of a $50 fire safety fee for students in early 2022, according to a previous Post report.

The proposal was postponed due to an overhaul of the student senate in the early spring, but Rymer and the new senate are working to reintroduce the proposal in hopes of getting it approved in time for the 2023-24 school year.

A survey conducted in 1997 found 49 of 50 students polled to be supportive of the idea of a fire safety fee, while a similar poll in 2017 found 26 of 30 in favor, according to a previous Post report. Should OU approve the fee, it would be the first university in the northwestern territory to do so.

If 20,000 students were to pay a student fee for two semesters, generating $2 million, Rymer said he would be able to increase staffing by 10 personnel as well as introduce more fire safety education for new students to help reduce the number of runs caused by things like burnt macaroni.

Outdated Station

As the 45,600-pound trucks pull out of the station to respond to a call, AFD's headquarters groans under pressure, pushing backward on the stilts holding it to the hill on Columbus Road. Built in 1965, the concrete base building has sustained cracks and wear over its 57-year lifespan.

In 2021, an independent engineer's report assessed the HQ station on Columbus Road, recommending almost $50,000 in repairs to keep the building operational and total station replacement urgently in the next two to three years, according to the 2021 annual report. The station also underwent significant structural repairs in 2005 and 2008, costing more than half a million dollars.

Rymer presented these findings to the Athens City Council, eventually securing funding for the emergency repairs and urging along the process of relocating and rebuilding the station.

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Photo courtesy of Athens Fire Department

Repairs are being made to the foundation of Athens Fire Department Headquarters, originally built in 1965. Over $500,000 of repairs have been made to the station since 2005.

In May 2022, Athens voters passed a levy proposing a 0.1% tax increase to fund the construction of a new fire HQ. Design plans were approved in the summer. The Council also approved the issuance of bonds up to $9 million to fund the project.

The current HQ is 9,500 square feet, while the new station located off Stimson Avenue with all of its capacity upgrades will be 26,000 square feet.

"We've got trucks just jammed in everywhere, there are equipment trailers and stuff packed underneath, storage buildings for more equipment," Rymer said. "We've grown out of this place. It was fine in 1965 when they built it, when they had two to three trucks here. We've expanded."

In addition to increased space, the new station will offer features adhering to modern-day safety standards to protect the firefighters who are often exposed to harmful fumes from both fires and exhaust from heavy machinery. Some training exercises will also be performed on-site rather than at an off-site location.

The new HQ, designed in the Georgian architectural style similar to the university, will be located just off the end of Stimson Avenue, near the roundabout, providing easier access to campus and more commercial areas on East State Street. Rymer said the estimated completion date is June 2024.