Some Rethinking SAFER Grants as Revenue Shrinks

Tightening local government revenue income means coming up with grant share is more difficult.

Last month, the city of Great Falls, Mont. had to decide if they would accept a grant of $1.73 that was awarded on Jan. 16 to help fund the hiring of 16 new firefighters.

The city commissioners voted unanimously, 5-0 on Jan. 28 to approve using it and funding the rest of the balance with city funds.

The department currently has a total of 64 uniformed employees, serving a population of approximately 55,000.

The added manpower would help the department move closer to meeting NFPA 1710, the standard setting minimum requirements relating to the organization and deployment of firefighters, according to Assistant Chief of Operations Steve Hester. The main issue that made the city rethink accepting the grant, Hester said, was the monetary obligation required.

"The hard match for the AFG is known, but this is a little different. Because it covers wages but doesn't include benefits, our fiscal folks were very concerned about the future impact on the general budget."

He said that for the first couple of years the city will be OK, but in order for it to secure the funds needed in the future for the grant, it would most likely take a public safety mill levy that would need to be voted on by the public.

Hester said he'd put it to a community vote in November if it was up to him. That way the department could introduce the idea to the public early on and have other chances to gain its vote if needed.

In 2005 in the fifth round of first SAFER grants, Miami Fire Rescue was awarded $2.6 Million to hire 26 firefighters. The department began to fill those positions in March of 2006 and is currently in the third year of the grant.

The grant covers $100,000 for each firefighter over the first four years of the grant, with the department picking up the tab after that.

"We're committed to it for the duration," Capt. Robert Turner, the department's grant manager said. "We've been able to do it so far because we've budgeted."

"It's working out well," he said. "Those young men are still here, there are progressing in their careers."

Since receiving the grant in 2005, Miami Fire Rescue has applied for two other SAFER grants. In 2006 its request was denied. Currently, the department is waiting for a reply on a requested grant for 12 firefighters filed in 2008.

Turner said there is a lot for departments to consider when applying for SAFER grants.

"I would work it backwards," he said. "Look at how much it will cost you and see if it is doable. If you can't afford your share, they aren't going to give you their share and you'll end up having to return the funds."

Recruitment and Retention Grants Working Well

Departments requesting money for the recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters must adhere to somewhat less stringent guidelines than departments looking for hiring funds. There is no funding match required.

Walls Volunteer Fire Department in Mississippi says they will use the money to provide small incentives for the volunteers they have, and reach out into the community to help increase their numbers.

The department received notice last December that they were awarded $115,000. Some of those funds will go towards incentives for volunteers, the rest will go to community outreach.

Fire Inspector David Krzyzkowski said that he was the one who first learned about the SAFER funds, and saw the opportunity to step up recruitment efforts, which had before relied on simple word-of-mouth.

"I got to reading the grant and said, wait a minute, we can use this for volunteers and also use it to help us recruit," he said. "The chief said if it's not going to cost anything to do it, go ahead and do it."

Krzyzkowski said his department is currently looking into getting a recruitment DVD produced, a process that is a lot more expensive than they originally thought.

He said they would likely put the video on the department's website, and have it available at the block parties the department began holding throughout the community last year.

"We got a good response last year, but see that we need to put forth more efforts. For every volunteer we get, we lose two or three."