Stafford, VA, Board Shoots Down SAFER Grant Over Costs

April 8, 2024
The Board of Supervisors did not want to apply for the SAFER grant over concerns about funding the firefighter positions in four years.

Apr. 7—The Stafford Board of Supervisors turned down the chance to apply for $10 million in federal grants that would have covered all the costs of 39 firefighters for three years.

There's no obligation for localities to pick up the salaries and other expenses at year four when the grants end, Fire Chief Joseph Cardello told the supervisors last week. However, that is the intent of FEMA, which administers the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grants.

If Stafford applied and received the grant, it would be on the hook for $4.2 million to cover the staff expenses in the fourth year, and going forward, he said.

That's what bothered Supervisor Darrell English, one of four board members who voted against applying for the grant. He feared the county would end up in a similar financial hole as has happened with other decisions made in past years that he said lacked foresight.

"I get it, it's a good deal," he said about the grant. "But in four years ... we might be in terrible shape. That's where I am, you know. We don't have a crystal ball to see that."

Other supervisors who voted against the grant were Chair Meg Bohmke, Pamela Yeung and Crystal Vanuch.

During the discussion, board members said instead of applying for the grant, the county could continue to add a crew per year, which would cost about $1.8 million annually, Cardello said. That means the county would spend $5.4 million in three years — more than they'd have to pay in year four when the SAFER grant ended, and with fewer firefighters to show for it.

The math didn't make sense to Supervisor Deuntay Diggs, a lieutenant in the Stafford Sheriff's Office.

"If we're saying that we're going to add a crew each year, and we're going to be there (financially) anyway in four years, I'm not understanding why we would not just apply for the federal funding and have them take the brunt of this," he said.

Cardello brought three proposals to the board. All were for full-time, entry-level positions:

* Add 27 firefighters to staff all of the current engines with four people per shift to meet national standards, Cardello said. Currently, the county has three people per shift.

* Add 39 firefighters to staff all engines with four people and add an engine at Potomac Hills, off U.S. 1 north of Garrisonville. It's the only station in a "suburban demand zone" without "dedicated fire suppression staffing," Cardello said.

* Add 63 firefighters to staff all nine engine companies with four people each and add staffing to Potomac Hills, Widewater and Brooke fire stations.

Vanuch said she was against the measure because it changed the staffing standards from three to four personnel on each engine crew. She suggested adding an engine crew at Potomac Hills next year and Widewater the year after.

Then, Vanuch said, a new station at Embrey Mill will need to be staffed, probably by 2026. She preferred getting the stations staffed with three personnel per shift first before changing the staffing standard to four per shift.

Allen asked what's typical, in terms of a crew size, in a locality like Stafford with almost 160,000 people.

"People do all kinds of different things," Cardello said, noting that the national standard is four per shift. "That is the safest for the public and the safest for our firefighters."

Cardello also said he took part in studies with the National Institute of Standards and Technology about 12 years ago. The group looked at crews from two to four people and determined that a four-person crew could do the 20-plus critical tasks needed at a fire scene 25% faster than a three-person crew.

That time savings is crucial, Gary said.

"That could be life and death for, you know, many circumstances," she said.

This year, Congress appropriated $360 million in SAFER grants and expects to make about 300 awards, Cardello said.

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425


(c)2024 The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.)

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