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Liberty fire chief ‘ready to go’

Birch laments changes in field as he ends 41-year career Dec. 31

LIBERTY — Like “everything else,” the reality of firefighting and fire department management is changing, Liberty fire Chief Gus Birch said.

Those changes signaled to Birch it is time to exit in December after a 41-year career in firefighting, providing medic services, managing firefighters and aiding in the community.

Liberty trustees have started the search to replace Birch by advertising the upcoming opening, said Trustee Arnie Clebone. Numerous candidates are expected to be interviewed, he said, although it will be tough to replace Birch.

Birch “has been a long-term, loyal employee and chief. It is going to be quite a job to replace him. We’re looking, there are some prospects out there. I’m hopeful we can find someone who will do a good job to replace him,” Clebone said.

One things Birch said has changed in the realm of firefighting is the pay.

At one time, a person in the line of work could support a family; now new hires are brought on at lower rates, Birch said. That incentivizes them to seek out higher-paying jobs elsewhere, leading to more turnover, he said.

Clebone said trustees are aware of the low-pay problem and are hoping to address it in contract negotiations when they arise. The contract took effect in 2017 and was extended in 2019, according to records from the State Employment Relations Board.

According to the contract, full-time firefighters start at $14.62 per hour. An amendment to the contract with the fire union in 2019 allowed the township to add part-time firefighters. In recent months, the township hired several part-timers at $12 or $14 per hour with no benefits.

Birch started his career in 1980 as a volunteer firefighter in Fowler and then Vienna. He worked for a private EMS company, was a paramedic and a shift supervisor.

He joined the Liberty Fire Department in 1994 as a part-timer and became a full-timer in 1996.

“I spent a lot of time in an ambulance,” Birch said.

But “after 41 years, the changes are just too much,” Birch said.

Birch said some don’t seem to understand the financial needs of the department and that providing fire services costs money.

If people don’t fund fire services, one day they’ll find themselves in an emergency and there won’t be anyone to send to help, he said.

“Something needs to be done,” he said.

Birch said the culture in fire departments has changed.

“It seems to me, people don’t have pride and dedication anymore. That is how it was before, when I first came on. Now, it is just about money, money, money,” Birch said.

He also said firefighting has grown soft.

“The way it was, if you messed up, you’d bend over and grab your ankles and get kicked. Now, they’re way too soft. If you raise your voice, you’re bullying. In this job, you need to be forceful. Everything we are teaching is life and death. If you don’t listen in training at the station, you won’t listen on the scene, and you’ll get killed or kill someone else,” Birch said.

It takes a special kind of person to do the job and to endure the tough things firefighters and paramedics are exposed to, he said.

But Birch said he has reached a point where he feels he is leaving the department better than he found it.

He said he was able to increase staff, obtain two new ambulances, a new rescue engine, get four new cardiac monitors and a new chief car.

“I am ready to go,” he said.

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