Grant Would Boost MBFD Staffing

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

March 11, 2022

The Morro Bay Fire Department is applying for a federal grant that could mean it goes to full staffing for the first time, perhaps ever, as part of the Coronavirus Pandemic response’s largesse from Uncle Sam.

Fire Chief Daniel McCrain recently sought authorization to apply for a “Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response” (SAFER) Grant from the Department of Homeland Security/Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The 3-year grant, totaling over $1.5 million, would pay for four, full-time firefighters to fill out the department’s staffing needs.

The SAFER grant, “covers 100% of the ‘fully burdened’ salary, i.e., salary, benefits, etc. of a Firefighter position,” Chief McCrain said in a staff report, “which is approximately between $483,000 to $524,000 for the four positions annually.”

He added that the grants this time around require zero matching funds from the City because of COVID-19. The grants could also help address an upcoming issue the department faces — the potential retirement of three of its long-time serving members. 

These retirements “could therefore reduce the overall force by attrition if additional sufficient funds are unavailable after the SAFER grant expires,” Chief McCrain said. “Every year multiple grant funding opportunities are made available for Fire Departments around the nation. It is common practice for departments to continually apply for these types of grants to help support firefighter safety through strategic grant seeking and funding.”

The SAFER grants this year are intended, “for critically needed resources to equip and train emergency personnel to recognized standards, enhance operations efficiencies, foster interoperability, and support community resilience,” the Chief explained. “This year’s SAFER Grant has set the highest priority is to assist departments experiencing staffing levels significantly below the ideal staffing level,” under federal standards.

Through various strategic plans and reviews of the MBFD, “our community will be best served with two, 3-person engine companies. This staffing model would create less dependency for off duty personnel to respond from home while meeting the need to respond to medical aids with the ability to contain a structure fire in the room of origin. By increasing our daily staffing to five personnel on duty daily, we are closer to the optimum level of service outlined in these reports.”

The extra crewmembers would also help the department comply with the National Fire Protection Act standards for response staffing.

The NFPA calls for, “a department should provide 16 firefighters on scene within 8 minutes, 90% of the time, for a fire in a single-family residence with the first engine arriving on scene within 4 minutes,” Chief McCrain said, “or 17 firefighters if responding with a ladder truck. Currently, our department operates with 12 full time operational personnel and runs nearly 2,000 calls annually from one fire station.”

So clearly, as hard working and talented as the MBFD is, it’s doesn’t meet what is considered the standard for staffing at fires. It should be noted that the majority of calls for service are medical aids in Morro Bay; which is why every firefighter is required to be a certified paramedic, too. Still, despite the staffing issues, the department does pretty well for its citizens.

“The average response from Morro Bay Fire is currently four paid Firefighters with two on one engine and two on the rescue or second engine,” Chief McCrain said. “The alarm also includes the request for the Fire Chief, Fire Marshal, and reserve firefighters. Local automatic aid contracts bring only one fire engine, one ambulance and one chief officer from neighboring agencies for a staffing level of six.”

The department’s reserve program — what used to be called “volunteer” firefighters — also isn’t up to snuff. “The reserve firefighter program has been successful for many years in Morro Bay, but we have witnessed a dramatic decline in qualified candidates due to training obligations, state training mandates and the limited availability to respond to incidents off duty. This has been a trend throughout San Luis Obispo County with all fire departments. In fact, Morro Bay is one of the last city departments in the SLO County to still operate a Reserve Firefighter Program.”

The issue with reserve programs, is that the training requirements are so high that successful reservists land full time work with other fire departments, taking their training here and putting it to work in other communities, somewhat like a baseball farm team feeds players to the majors.

And, “Our current organizational design also depends on off duty full time personnel responding from home,” he said. “With the change of our reliability of reserve firefighters and the limited full-time personnel responding from home, today we must rely on auto aid and mutual aid response from our neighboring communities.”

In Morro Bay that usually means getting help from Cal Fire in Cayucos and Los Osos. The SAFER grant will make the city, well, safer.

“By funding these four positions, our department will be able to respond five personnel and two apparatus, two Chief Officers [along with 5 firefighters from our automatic aid agencies] within 8 minutes to any single family fire.”

While that won’t meet the NFPA standards of six, it’ll be a lot closer and will allow the other firefighters some relief.

“Additional staffing will also increase the overall health and safety of the members of the department,” Chief McCrain said, “by relieving physical and emotional stress, reducing injuries, and providing for a healthier working environment. All of these will reduce risk to Firefighters and our community.”

If readers wonder how busy the MBFD really is, in a recent City Manager’s Monthly Update, Scott Collins reported that the MBFD in 2021 responded to a total of 1,925 calls — about 5-1/2 calls a day average. There were 51 fire calls encompassing structure fires, vehicle fires, dumpster fires, wildland-grass fires and more. 

There were 1,183 emergency medical aids — both advanced and basic aid. Advanced life support is when paramedics start an IV or use life saving equipment like defibrillators, taking measures beyond simple first aid.

They had 121 false alarms; seven hazardous materials spills including gas spills or leaks, natural gas leaks or spills, and more.

There were 59 “other hazardous materials” calls — downed power lines, arcing wire, etc. 

There were also 505 public assists, lift assists, flooding, non-fire electrical hazards, smoke alarm battery changes for elderly folks, and such. 

“It is nice to know we have these great trained personnel in our town assisting saving lives,” Collins said.

Asked by Estero Bay News when he might expect to hear if he got the SAFER Grant, Chief McCrain said probably not until summer. “FEMA will begin announcing the awards beginning the Summer of 2022 and end the awards Sept. 30, or until all funds have been awarded. We are hopeful but will not know until this summer.”

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