Friday, Oct. 20 — 10:26 p.m.
The atmosphere in Oxford’s fire department (OFD) can go from zero to 100 in a minute on any given night.
One minute, six firefighters/paramedics and EMTs are gathered inside the firehouse trading jabs, making coffee, smoking cigars and stealing spoonfuls of one another’s ice cream sundaes from Spring Street Treats.
The next, someone’s radio sounds and the crackle of the Butler County dispatcher barks out a call. Three of the EMTs and one student volunteer training to be a paramedic board an ambulance. The night has just begun.
Trouble on the horizon
“Our numbers are up,” Chief John Detherage said.
The OFD is under-resourced and overstressed. Not enough money is coming into the department to support the number of employees needed to care for both the city and the university, especially when 40 percent of the people who utilize EMS services are students rather than tax-paying residents.
From Aug. 1 through Oct. 1 this semester, there have been 426 EMS calls, according to the OFD’s count record system. Last year, there were 361 calls during the same time frame, and, in 2015, there were 355 calls.
“It could be a thousand different reasons as to why our calls have jumped,” Detherage said. “But the Miami population is bigger than ever and, personally, until the punishment fits the crime, I don’t think things will change.”
Additionally, 35 percent of all calls are made for individuals aged 18 to 24. Whereas calls for those ages 60 and up only make up 33 percent of the total.
“We get more calls from college-aged students within the Miami population than the sick and dying residents of Oxford,” Capt. Jay Fields said.
The first alcohol-related call of the night comes from Stanton Hall. An 18-year-old male in a Yankees jersey mumbles incoherently as full-time firefighter and paramedic Jeremy Smith prepares a finger prick to determine the student’s blood sugar.
The crackle of the radio sounds again and Fields turns his attention away from the scene and jogs to the ALS-1 transport vehicle, a car outfitted with a siren and equipped with various EMS medical supplies.
The dispatcher alerts Fields to an semi-conscious male standing in the alley behind Brick Street. The captain turns on the siren and starts speeding west on Chestnut before turning onto Main to head back Uptown.
OFD: past and present
Up until 2008, the OFD was a volunteer fire department that relied entirely upon the town’s residents.
Capt. John Witt has been with the department for over 30 years. He recalls that only since the turn of the century has there been such a rapid increase in the number of runs the OFD does every year.
“As the calls began to increase, volunteerism began to seriously wane,” Witt said.
While there was always a chief employed full-time by the city, until 2008, the chief was the only full-time employee of the department.
Under Detherage, Oxford’s fire and EMS services have made progress toward modernization.
But Oxford remains one of Butler County’s busiest firehouses, with neither the staff nor the funding to manage nearly 3,200 runs per year spanning a territory of 53 square miles.
“Miami is such a huge demand on the resources we have,” Fields said. “The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends that firehouses have 16 people on shift a day. We have six.”
The OFD has four employees on shift 24 hours a day and on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, that number is increased to six a shift with an additional two student volunteer EMTs.
In the neighboring Fairfield Township, (only a 28 minute drive away) the fire department has two firehouses, employs 12 people a day, covers 19 square miles and averages roughly 3,100 to 3,300 runs a year.
“Every single day, we’re being asked to do more and more with less and less,” Fields said. “Two weeks ago, there was a night where we made 16 calls, and all of them were for students.”
Saturday, Oct. 21 — 12:39 a.m.
While Fields talks to bar owner Ted Woods about enforcing the capacity limits of both The Woods’ and Side Bar’s outdoor patios, two additional calls are radioed within two minutes of one another.
One ambulance is sent off to field a call on North Quad while Fields runs to High Street. Sitting in a chair on the Bagel and Deli patio, a drunk kid streaked with blood from head to toe struggles to remember if he fell, someone punched him in the nose or if he hit his head on the back of his chair.
Student volunteer and sophomore Kyle Mashy reminds the blood-splattered student that the paramedics are not the bad guys (“We’re here to help you out, man”), but the kid refuses to admit how much he drank.
Further down High Street and to the left of Talawanda Road, another student is being picked up at McFarland Hall and transported to McCullough Hyde Memorial Hospital.
There have been nine calls to OPD so far, seven of which have been alcohol-related.
For Kim Owens, her part-time position as a firefighter and paramedic in Oxford is a way to get her foot in the door to eventually work full-time in Ohio.
“I work full-time at the Point Pleasant Fire Department in Northern Kentucky, but Kentucky’s state budget is so messed up I can’t make enough on salary there,” Owens said.
In order to support herself, Owens works both part-time in Oxford and full-time in Kentucky and has been known to work 60 hours straight while juggling both jobs.
“My schedule this past week was a 24-hour shift Tuesday,” Owens said. “I had Wednesday off, then I worked from 7 p.m. on Thursday through 7:30 a.m. on Sunday. I’ll have 11 ½ hours off after that, but then I’ll be back in Oxford and that’s not even accounting for all of the commuting I do in between shifts in Oxford and Point Pleasant.”
Ultimately, the department does not have the funds to support taking on more employees or at the very least creating full-time positions for part-time employees, even though they are desperately in need of more bodies on shifts.
“We have a very high turnover rate because people get burnt out, for lack of a better term. This place is an anomaly,” Fields said.
On the corner of Campus Avenue and High Street, a student in a black t-shirt and scuffed up Vans lies down on the sidewalk. His eyes are bloodshot. His friend talks to Fields.
“I think he had about eight shots and some Four Loko,” she says.
Fields asks if the boy has taken any drugs.
The girl nods fearfully. Fields radios for backup from Witt, who arrives on the scene in the back-up emergency vehicle, a boxy, white truck that OFD employees have nicknamed the “Wonder Bread truck.”
At this point in the evening, all of the other ambulances have been dispatched to various alcohol-related calls, and Fields is forced to abandon his ALS-1 car as he and Witt begin to transport their eighth student of the night to the hospital.
Only 10 minutes pass before Fields gets another notification that there’s a call at Tappan Hall. Someone needs to be transported to McCullough-Hyde.
Barely getting by
“I come from the time when we only had a volunteer fire department,” Oxford police department’s Lt. Lara Fening said. “I think great progress has been made by Chief Detherage, but when you do experience those busy nights you start to think perhaps we should be stacked a little more, especially when we have to get other townships to come in because we don’t have enough ambulances.”
The city allocates $1.225 million toward the department, but the majority of OFD’s budget for vehicles, salaries and other miscellaneous expenses comes from the Oxford income tax.
The department also makes money off of the fee ordinances issued for each run made. For the 2018 projected fee ordinances there are three levels of EMS calls: the Basic Life Support (BLS), which costs $630, the Advanced Life Support (ALS) 1 which costs $910 and the ALS-2, which costs $1,130.
However, only $313 of each fee ordinance charged actually goes back to the department.
That $1.225 million combined with the $570,000 dollars accumulated from EMS runs contribute to the overall $1.95 million annual income of the OFD, yet their expenses almost match that — $1.755 million when all is said and done.
“If our runs start to outpace what we’re bringing in, we’re going to be in real trouble,” Detherage said. “Unless we get more jobs, things aren’t looking great as the university looks to bring in more and more students every year.”
Fening has heard arguments from the town that Miami should be forced to pay something to the department.
“I understand residents who are praying no emergency happens at their own homes while the fire department handles all of these alcohol calls for the students,” Fening said. “They’re anxious and they’re scared for that day.”
Meanwhile, shortly after Brick Street closes, one of bar’s employees finds a girl passed out in the second-floor bathroom, leaning up against one of the toilets.
She calls 911, and a couple minutes later, Fields and a couple of paramedics arrive in an ambulance.
Fields, Smith and Owens help lead the girl down the steps of the Brick balcony and out into the crisp, early morning air.
The girl seems utterly confused. Her makeup is smeared and the buckle to one of her shoes is ripped off. Smith props her up gently. “Do you know where you are?” he asks her softly. She remains unresponsive, staring vacantly at the ambulance in front of her.
No more than a minute passes when Fields receives another call. This time it’s a fire alarm at McBride in East Quad. The second fire alarm tonight.
“It’s a matter of when not if…”
“This place is one of the luckiest towns in the world,” Fields said. “That being said, we are always just one bad night away…when I’m literally forced to abandon my vehicle because all of our other ambulances are away on alcohol calls, what happens when there is actual fire?”
Safety is always a concern for every firefighter, but it’s especially true for Oxford’s firefighters and paramedics who are limited to three members on a crew when they are dispatched on an EMS call, the scene of a car accident or a fire.
“Hopefully I know I can trust my crew to get the job done,” Owens said. “But always in the back of your mind is the idea that there’s only two people to pull you out if something were to go wrong.”
For Fields, that day when something truly goes wrong is a matter of when, not if.
Inside of Porter Hall, the Miami University Police Department (MUPD) is dealing with two alcohol-related calls in the same third-floor hallway.
They call Fields for backup.
One girl, who was mistaken for a student who had been carried up the stairs into her room, refuses medical help. The other girl, who actually had to be carried up the stairs, fights off the EMTs who have come into her room and swears in anger when asked to put on pants.
Her boyfriend stands in the hallway rocking back and forth on his heels while waiting for a female MUPD sergeant to come by. The officer present asks him how his girlfriend ended up with bruises on her face.
He shrugs his shoulders.
Eventually, the girl is forced into pants and led out of Porter Hall. She’s given the option of the hospital or jail. She chooses the hospital, but remains combative as the EMTs prepare an IV for her in the back of the ambulance.
There have been 17 calls within the past five hours. Thirteen of them have been alcohol-related.
Looking toward the future
“You’d be a fool to think that that, with all of the media attention last year and the student death that happened, Miami and the city haven’t started to crack down,” Fields said.
But the runs have not slowed despite both the city’s and the university’s attempts to reign in the students’ alcohol consumption.
“The truth is we’re outnumbered,” Detherage said. “I don’t know what the answer is. I’m not sure what it’s going to take to get kids to stop.”
Solutions involving the university to help allocate funds to the department have been proposed to the city in the past, but the issue of how to get more money to OFD has become very political.
In the end, no matter how taxing or frustrating each Thursday, Friday and Saturday night can be, each and every one of the people who work for the fire department are committed to serving both the town and the students.
“People often don’t think about us until they have to,” Fields said. “But it’s our job to do what’s right for the citizens. What else are we supposed to do?”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly named the “property tax” as the main source of the OFD’s budget. It is actually the “income tax.”