The Statesboro Fire Department received a unanimous go-ahead Tuesday from City Council to apply for a $2.32 million federal grant to hire 22 more firefighters, requiring a $1.44 million city match over three years.
Tuesday morning found the council in the mood for some spending commitments but not for one particular spending item, a proposed $38,500 housing study. Council members suggested that study can wait until economic concerns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are addressed.
But at this point the city’s commitment to hiring more firefighters is potential rather than definite. The SFD is applying for a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant, by which the federal government would pay 75% of the firefighters’ salaries and benefits the first two years and 35% the third year.
City Manager Charles Penny told the mayor and council that they were not necessarily budgeting for the city’s share at this time, because the grant hasn’t been awarded yet. The elected officials will face another decision if the grant is approved.
“First off, you don’t have to accept the grant, but if you accept the grant, you also have to recognize that this is for the long term,” Penny said. “We would not just hire 22 people just for the life of the grant. We need to be planning for those people to be city employees from then on out.”
After three years, paying the firefighters would become 100% the city’s responsibility, except for any costs the county might share. The Statesboro Fire Department, he noted, serves not only Statesboro within its city limits, but a fire district extending into Bulloch County’s unincorporated area, up to five miles from each of the SFD’s stations.
“So we would be using funding from the fire district to help offset that match, that cost, and then as we move forward being able to pay those additional firefighters as well,” Penny said.
While the grant lasted, the city’s expected share in the firefighters’ pay and benefits would be $313,428 each of the first two years, then $814,914 the third year. In the grant memo, the full annual cost of employing the firefighters is shown as $1,253,714.
A big expansion
Adding 22 firefighters would increase the Statesboro Fire Department’s total workforce by more than 40%. The department currently employs 50 people, including 47 certified firefighters, one fire inspector and two administrative assistants. The firefighter count includes Fire Chief Tim Grams and the deputy and assistant chiefs.
If awarded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and accepted by Statesboro City Council, the SAFER grant would help the Statesboro Fire Department meet National Fire Protection Association standards, Grams said after the meeting.
“The goal is to maintain at all times – 24/seven, 365 – four firefighters on every apparatus that we run in the city of Statesboro, which is four,” Grams said.
That’s 16 firefighters assigned to engines, plus a battalion chief, or a total of 17 firefighters on each shift, he said. Right now, the department keeps 11 firefighters on a shift, including the battalion chief. Any expansions also have to allow for sick days and vacations, he noted.
Grams and Penny both indicated that more discussions would need to take place with county officials, who at this point have not been asked to commit fire-district funding for added firefighters. Placing a third SFD station to reach into another area of the county has long been mentioned as a possibility.
“Certainly those are some conversations that we need to have, but we’ve been very transparent with them about our staffing levels and our need and our desire to raise those staffing levels, so I feel like they understand kind of what we’re trying to accomplish, and I think we’ll be able to work together to figure out long-term how we can make this work,” Grams said.
Statesboro already has “an outstanding fire department, a Class 2 ISO-rated fire department,” Penny had begun his remarks to City Council. “However, we do have a need to add staff,” he said.
The additional firefighters would enable the department “to deploy the adequate manpower that’s needed when an engine company arrives to the scene (so) they don’t have to wait for another engine company to get there to be able to start the attack,” Penny said.
Fire protection ratings awarded by the Insurance Services Office, or ISO, a business that serves the insurance industry, range from 10 to 1, with 1 representing the best possible protection. The rating of 2/2Y was awarded to the Statesboro department in 2018, followed by certification of some private water systems last year so the top rating would apply to more homes.
The grant application to FEMA is due May 15, and city officials hope to learn sometime early this fall whether the grant is approved, Penny said.