MBFD Seeking Grants for More Firefighters

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.

May 8, 2023

Morro Bay Fire Department is hoping to tap Uncle Sam for money to pay for more firefighters and better serve the town’s residents and visitors.

Fire Chief Dan McCrain recently asked the City Council for permission to apply for a grant from the “Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response” or SAFER program “for the hiring of limited term firefighters.”

In his report to city council, Chief McCrain said, “The SAFER Grant covers 100% of the ‘fully burdened’ salary, i.e., salary, benefits, etc. of a Firefighter position, which is approximately $138,144 for year one; $143,970 year two; and $150,088 year three, per firefighter; or between $414,432 and $450,264 for the three positions annually.”

With the MBFD’s hoped-for three positions to be funded, the total grant request would be for $1.29 million. Under the SAFER Program this year, Chief McCrain said there is no local match requirement.

The fire chief explained that it’s common for fire departments to apply annually for the slugs of money the State and Federal governments make available to bolster public safety. 

And the most well-know grant programs are these SAFER grants and the Assistance to Firefighter Grants (AFG).

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

Morro Bay has over the years conducted various studies looking at staffing levels in the fire department and coming up with recommendations. Chief McCrain noted that such studies were done in 2004, 2005, 2010 and 2015; the last two of these were for strategic plans. 

The conclusion has been that the city would be best served if the fire department always had two, 3-man fire engine companies on duty every day.

“This staffing model,” Chief McCrain said, “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 from four to five personnel on duty daily we are closer to the optimum level of service outlined in these reports.”

Under current firefighting standards, a fire department should be able to 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 5 minutes or 17 firefighters if responding with a ladder truck.”

Chief McCrain explained that currently they don’t meet that standard. “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. 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.”

He said they could no longer rely on the department’s reserve firefighters corps. “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,” Chief McCrain said. “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.”

They have also been relying on off-duty firefighters to respond when the call goes out. This one-two punch hurts. “Our current organizational design,” he said, “also depends on off-duty full-time personnel responding from home. 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.”

If they do get the grant monies, it will mean a world of difference for the department. “By funding these three positions,” Chief McCrain said, “our department will be able to respond five personnel and two apparatus, two chief officers [along with five firefighters from our automatic aid agencies], within 8 minutes to any single-family fire.”

And the strain on the fire department could grow exponentially, as the Morro Bay Power Plant is being considered for construction of the world’s largest lithium-ion battery storage facility at 600 megawatts. 

Because if the fire department can’t meet standard response numbers for a single-family house fire, how can it be expected to adequately respond to a fire at a gigantic lithium-ion battery plant?

Chief McCrain said he expects the SAFER Grant awards to be announced in September. All told the program will award some 300 grants.

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