SAFER Grant Could Rehire Calif. FFs

The Alameda Fire Department looks set to secure a $1.7 million federal grant that could result in six laid-off firefighters getting their jobs back.

The City Council unanimously backed applying for the grant on Tuesday, when Alameda fire Chief Dave Kapler said he expected federal authorities will approve the application.

Mayor Beverly Johnson called it "a no-brainer" to support the application.

Known as "SAFER," or Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, the grant would restore six firefighter jobs, including some that were cut during the past two years as city officials wrestled with budget problems.

The grant would pay for the entire salary and benefits of the rehired firefighters, Kapler said.

"This is a staffing grant for adequate fire and emergency response," said Domenick Weaver, president of the local Alameda firefighters union. "With the cuts that we have endured so far, this will help a lot."

He added, "We look forward to getting six firefighters from the unemployment lines and back on the front lines."

Alameda firefighters applied for the grant, which the Department of Homeland Security administers, about two months ago.

The rehired firefighters will mean that two of the city's four fire engine companies will meet minimum staffing requirements under the National Fire Protection Association standards, according to the union.

Federal authorities have chosen to give the grant to areas that have lost firefighter jobs, such as departments in Indiana and Florida, Weaver said.

Candidates to fill the jobs will come from the Displaced Firefighter List, which is maintained by the California Fire Foundation Joint Apprenticeship Committee. It names firefighters from throughout the state who were laid off.

The move to apply for the grant comes after the Alameda department closed Fire Station 5 at the former Naval base in April 2009. The single engine company station was staffed with three firefighters.

Eleven firefighter jobs also were lost in July as a result of city budget cuts, which meant that one captain was laid off and two apparatus operators were shifted to different positions. Two layoffs occurred last June.

Overall, the city cut 63 positions last year, or 10 percent of its work force.

Since 2008, the fire department has dropped 19 sworn positions, going from 111 to 92.

Firefighters say the addition of six firefighters will help boost response time and protect public safety.

Among those who urged the council to back applying for the grant was Mike Henneberry of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union.

Also on Tuesday, City Treasurer Kevin Kennedy and City Auditor Kevin Kearney briefed the council on the work of the Fiscal Sustainability Committee, which was formed two years ago to review the city's finances.

While the city has withstood the current economic slump, paying for public employee retirements and ongoing deferred maintenance means the city will continue to have a budget in the red, Kennedy said.

"We have natural problems that are going to make our budget problems worse every year, even if we do absolutely nothing (toward additional spending,)" he said.

Retirement costs will likely increase in the future as people live longer and retire earlier, while the city should be spending $8 million annually to protect its infrastructure, Kennedy said.

Instead, the city earmarks $2 million annually for the work.

"We are not paying our bills," Kennedy said. "That's the important thing to take away from this."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service