Grants Would Boost Fire Department

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.

August 12, 2020

The Morro Bay Fire Department is applying for two federal grants — one that would buy new protective gear and the other would pay for two firefighters.

The Fire Department was given permission in July to apply for an, “Assistance to Firefighters Grants” (AFG) from the Department of Homeland Security for personal protective equipment; and a “Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response” (SAFER) grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that would pay for two firefighters for three years.

According to a staff report from Fire Marshal Matt Vierra and Fire Chief Steve Knuckles, the AFG would be used to buy turnout gear including boots, gloves, and head protection “for all full-time staff at the cost of $37,388 with no local match required.”

The SAFER Grant “covers 100% of the ‘fully burdened’ salary, i.e., salary and benefits, of a firefighter position, which is $120,675 annually, or $241,350 for the two positions annually.”

The department is asking for a total cost of $724,000 over 3-years. Again, there is no local match required, “because of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The grant won’t mean more firefighters on the crew, but would help out the City after the coronavirus pandemic response cut off much of the City’s tax revenues and devastated the budget.

“If awarded,” the report said, “the Fire Department will maintain its current staffing level with no proposal to increase staffing, thereby supplanting General Fund expenses by that amount.”

A $724,000 boost would help a lot, especially if the voters don’t approve Measure E-20, the City’s 1-percent sales tax hike at the November Election.

“The primary goal of the AFG and SAFER Grants is to enhance the safety of the public and firefighters with respect to fire-related hazards,” according to the report. “This is done by providing direct financial assistance to eligible fire departments, nonaffiliated Emergency Medical Services organizations, and State Fire Training Academies.”

This is driven by the pandemic. “With the financial crisis created by COVID-19, DHS/FEMA recognizes the financial hardship for cities to maintain its fire department staffing. This year’s extremely competitive national SAFER Grant will fully fund current positions already in place for 3-years with no obligation to maintain those positions after 3-years.”

The government had a similar program in place after the Great Recession of 2008. The AFG recognizes that firefighting is dangerous work.

“We now know that the risk of occupational cancer is among the greatest threats faced by modern firefighters,” the report said, “and continually updating the personal protective equipment will improve the overall health and safety of firefighters.”

New safety standards for 2020 include “two advanced cleanings are now required each year, and protective clothing should be subject to advanced cleaning whenever it is exposed to products of combustion [e.g., fire gases and smoke particulates]. This updated requirement will create challenges for many fire departments that currently do not have the resources to provide frequent cleaning of turnout gear, which in return could shorten the life span of the PPE.”

Personnel are the targets of the SAFER Grant Program. “The NFPA states for suburban areas an agency should provide 10 firefighters within nine minutes at 80% of the time for a fire in a single-family residence. Current automatic contracts bring only two fire engines and one chief officer from neighboring agencies for a staffing level of six. The average response from Morro Bay Fire is currently three paid and one reserve. The alarm also includes the request for the fire chief, fire marshal, and reserve firefighters.”

The anticipated grant funding awards are scheduled for sometime in Fall 2020.

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