$2 million federal grant to pay for 9 new firefighters for 2 years
By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Two Santa Rosa fire stations that are “browned out” because the city can’t afford enough firefighters to fully staff them will be returned to full service soon, thanks to a $2.6 million federal grant.
The federal funds, which were unanimously accepted by the City Council on Tuesday, will pay for the fire department to hire nine firefighters and fully fund them for two years.
The additional staffing will allow Station 11 on Lewis Road in the Junior College neighborhood and Station 10 on Corporate Center Parkway in the southwest area to operate full-time for the first time since 2010, when the city’s financial crisis forced the service reduction.
Ever since, they have run on an alternating schedule, with each being staffed for two days at a time.
The council praised the department for its resourcefulness in chasing down the grant, which is highly competitive and managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“It is really nice, at least for a couple years, not have to talk about brown-outs,” Mayor Scott Bartley said Tuesday.
The new employees are set to be hired in March, and after a period of training, the stations should return to full-time service in May, Santa Rosa Fire Chief Mark McCormick told the City Council.
The big question, however, is what happens after those two years. The council didn’t want to find itself forced to lay off those same nine firefighters when the money runs out.
But McCormick said he expects that either enough firefighters will retire or new funding sources will materialize to help the city afford the personnel. He said he expects 20 firefighters to retire in the next two years.
If new funding sources are needed, the department could continue to look for additional grant funds, or it might revisit a previously rejected idea of imposing an emergency services fee.
Homeowners would be charged $4 per month to avoid being charged $350 each time a paramedic-staffed firetruck was dispatched to an emergency medical call at their address.
The plan would raise an estimated $1.3 million, and McCormick said the department would continue to pursue it if necessary.
The worst-case scenario would be that the brown-outs would be restored in two years. But it’s unlikely layoffs would need to occur, McCormick said.
The department currently is understaffed, which means that it often needs to pay overtime. The nine firefighters could be used to cover vacancies and reduce overtime, McCormick said.
The new firefighters are also being hired at lower salaries and with less generous benefits than existing employees, which will create additional savings.
And any firefighters hired under the grant who are military veterans are eligible to be funded by a related grant for another year, McCormick said.
The department has been recruiting for the open positions, and has winnowed the field of 450 applicants to about 22, he said. In addition to the nine, the department needs to replace four positions vacant from retirements, he said.
That brings the total number of new firefighters being hired in coming months to 13.
To ensure the city doesn’t use the grant money to fund existing positions, the city is barred from laying off existing firefighters, unless the city can demonstrate that it has a financial hardship, McCormick said.
Vice Mayor Erin Carlstrom said she was “hesitant to ever call anything free money,” but said it was good to see “outside sources” help the city provide local services.
The grant is known as SAFER, Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response.
Since 2005, more than a thousand SAFER grants in excess of $500 million have helped fire departments increase staffing of frontline firefighters, according to FEMA.