The grants, part of FEMA’s Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant program, will enable the district to re-open three stations and replace 15 firefighters laid off in June when Measure S fire tax failed at the polls. The two-year funding will also enable the district to hire 12 additional firefighters, returning staffing levels to 54 firefighters, 18 per shift in six stations. The district currently operates with 27 personnel, nine per shift in three stations.
In urging the Board to accept the grants, Fire Chief Hugh Henderson emphasized that the grants are not a permanent solution to the district’s money problems. Long-term costs for medical and retirement benefits must still be reined in, and property tax revenue lost to the recession must still be replaced.
“This is like a two-year, get-out-of-jail-free card,” agreed Director Erick Stonebarger. It will improve service while new board members are appointed by Oakley and Brentwood, and give them time to find permanent answers to the district's fiscal woes, he said.
Implementing the grants will be far more complex than simply unlocking the doors and flipping on the lights in the shuttered stations. For example, the trailer that had provided crew quarters at the Bethel Island station has been removed, and the station itself has been condemned for human habitation. New quarters would have to be secured before the station could re-open.
Also, about half the 15 firefighters laid off have been hired by other districts. Those who do return would not have to be re-qualified, nor would other firefighters currently on the state’s official displaced firefighters list.
But Vince Wells, president of firefighter union Local 1230, said there were concerns about the level of qualifications of some of those on the displaced firefighter list, as some have endured years of unemployment that may have deteriorated their skills. He said it may be preferable to open the application list to the general public and spend the $7,500 per-person fire Chief Hugh Henderson expects it to cost to recruit, train and equip each firefighter. The Board will vote on the hiring process on Sept. 10.
Henderson told the Board that he felt re-opening and re-training costs could be absorbed by the District’s current budget. He expects it to take 60 to 90 days to get the first firefighters deployed.
Concern was raised by the Board and members of the public at the meeting about restrictions that come with the grant money. The terms require the district to maintain all 54 positions for the entire two-year grant period, but none of the money can be used for anything other than base payroll. Overtime or increased medical, retirement and operating costs associated with re-expanding the district would have to be borne by its depleted General Fund, and lay-offs would not be possible, Stonebarger pointed out.
“It’s going to be tough to manage expenses with 54 employees, but if they come after us (for failing to maintain the 54 positions) there’s not a lot they can take,” he said.
Henderson said that FEMA would be monitoring closely what the money was being used for, and in the past had been “fairly flexible” in modifying terms of grants in the event staffing changes are unavoidable.
“I can’t guarantee that would be the case here,” Henderson told the Board, “but our intention would be to fulfill the (two-year) commitment.”
Henderson said a proposed implementation plan would come before the Board at its Sept. 10 meeting. It will most likely use a phased approach, hiring nine firefighters and opening other stations one at a time.