By Ed Runyan
About 20 firefighters have an uncertain future as they wait to see whether the federal government will extend the Warren Fire Department’s Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant.
Fire Chief Ken Nussle said he feels “pretty good” about the chances that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will allow the city to use the remaining $2 million of the city’s $4.9 million SAFER grant after it expires Nov. 26.
That extension could allow the city to keep the 20 to 24 firefighters about another year, Nussle said.
The reason the department hasn’t used the whole $4.9 million is because it took nearly five months to get a hiring list ready and to perform background checks on candidates after the grant was awarded, Nussle said.
The reason for the five-month delay was that the city got approval for the grant only several days before the grant began Nov. 26, 2010.
Since 2011, the department has had some turnover, so a second entry-level hiring test was given in June 2012 to keep the staffing level at 75. The second testing produced additional lag time, Nussle said.
Meanwhile, the fire department applied earlier this month for a second SAFER grant identical to the first one, Nussle said.
The chief said he doesn’t know what the city’s chances are of being successful a second time.
Bob Dean, city council president, said if the worst happens and the city doesn’t receive any additional fund-ing after Nov. 26, drastic cuts in the fire department or spending elsewhere in the budget will have to occur.
“We all knew this day was coming,” Dean said. “The only shining light is that the fire department started looking for funding alternatives.”
The federal government awarded Warren the first SAFER grant in September 2010. It allowed the city to recall 10 firefighters who had been laid off in 2009 and hire 14 more. The money was for salary and benefits for two years and brought the department’s staffing level to 75 from the 51 it had at the time.
An average firefighter costs the city about $100,000 in salary and benefits, Warren Auditor David Griffing said.
Nussle said one reason the department received the grant was so it could meet an industry standard of arriving at fires within four minutes. Another reason was so the department could have an adequate number of firefighters at each fire.
When the department had 51 firefighters, it mostly operated just one of its three firehouses, which slowed response time. The department arrived at fires within four minutes only 10 percent of the time, Nussle said.
In April 2011, the department started to operate three stations again.
“Now we’re meeting it [the four-minute rule] 100 percent of the time,” Nussle said.