Montana City Might Not be able to Afford Grant

Jan. 15, 2009
If the City Commission decides to accept the ample grant, Great Falls could add 16 firefighters, enough to staff an entire new engine company, to its 60-person force.

Here's the good news. Great Falls Fire/Rescue has been awarded a hefty $1.73 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security to increase its staffing levels, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., announced Wednesday.

Here's the bad news. The city of Great Falls might not be able to afford it.

That's the quandary for Great Falls officials amid a nationwide economic recession, and tighter local purse strings.

If the City Commission decides to accept the ample grant, Great Falls could add 16 firefighters, enough to staff an entire new engine company, to its 60-person force.

"As Great Falls grows, the fire department has had to respond to an increasing number of fire and emergency calls," said Rehberg, a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Fire Chief Randy McCamley said he was pleased to hear the news.

"We've never received a grant like this before," McCamley said.

McCamley said the one drawback to the grant is it requires a substantial investment by the city in trying financial times.

McCamley said his office applied for the grant last spring, when officials were considering asking voters to approve extra property taxes to pay for more police and fire services.

A clunky economy prompted officials to shelve the idea of a public safety levy for 2008, McCamley said. And he said the city budget has been extremely tight.

McCamley said the federal grant would provide money to cover a portion of new firefighter salaries for five years, starting at a 90 percent level the first year, dropping to 80 percent in the second year, 50 percent in the third year, 30 percent in the fourth year and 0 percent in the fifth year.

By the fifth year, the additional salaries and benefits would cost the city $950,000, he estimated. Under terms of the grant, the city must agree to retain the 16 new firefighting positions for all five years.

"If you're going to add staff over the next few years, this would be the way to do it," McCamley said.

He said the City Commission will need to examine the issue and decide whether the city can afford to go through with it. McCamley said staff members will look at a key issue: "Where's that money going to come from?"

Last March, McCamley told the Great Falls City Commission he needed those 16 firefighters, after three decades of a force stuck at 60 members.

In March, McCamley said the city has fallen behind national guidelines recommending that 14 firefighters respond initially to a residential structure fire. He said the Great Falls department usually sends 10 firefighters for an initial attack on a house fire, and "we're probably not doing it as safely and carefully as we should." Great Falls ranked fifth worst in the country in 2001 for average loss per residential fire at $17,313, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

Firefighters must try to rescue people before a "flashover" kills anyone inside a burning structure, McCamley said.

Adding 16 firefighters would mean two firefighters could pour water on a fire and two others could rush into a building to rescue people, McCamley said. With current numbers, McCamley said two firefighters often must share duties of pouring water on a fire and trying to rescue people.

"We're working our work force to exhaustion," McCamley said at the time. Adding the extra people could reduce injuries to firefighters by one-third, he said.

Republished with permission of The Great Falls Tribune.

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