A nearly $9 million federal grant will allow the City of Spokane to hire 50 more firefighters next year and extend service hours for medical units dispatched to non-life-threatening calls.
“Nothing but good news from the Spokane Fire Department this morning. We’re very humbled by the government’s support of our community,” Assistant Chief Brian Schaeffer said at a news conference Friday.
The money comes from the Staffing For Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) program overseen by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
It’s Spokane’s second award from the program; the department got $2 million in 2014, which helped bolster the Alternative Response Units that now answer less urgent medical calls within the Fire Department’s service area.
Mayor David Condon called the grant a “second step” in the ARU initiative, which has been praised by a national consultant but saw a rocky start due to staffing levels.
“The Fire Department is adapting, to respond and provide the best and safest service while meeting challenging, changing community needs here in our city,” Condon said.
The grant money will be used to add another firefighter to companies at stations No. 1, 2, 4, 5, 11 and 13, Schaeffer said.
The ARU program was launched in 2013; it sends teams driving sport-utility vehicles to less-urgent medical calls. The aim is to free up personnel and equipment for more urgent fire and medical calls. The program was temporarily halted by the Spokane City Council for a month last summer when concerns were raised about single-person ARU responses and longer response times. An agreement was eventually signed requiring two-person ARU teams, but not both of the team members had to be firefighters.
The additional 50 hires will allow the department to staff the ARU program 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, Schaeffer said. The program had been available 10 hours a day, Monday through Friday.
Schaeffer estimated that about 90 percent of all calls to the Fire Department are for medical issues. Hiring additional firefighters will allow stations to handle those calls while keeping staff available in case of fires.
“Other communities tried it, and embraced it, but never really integrated it,” Schaeffer said. “We’re integrating it, 24 hours a day.”
The $8.6 million award over two years is the third-most FEMA has awarded a department nationwide so far this year. Only Providence, Rhode Island, which was awarded $15 million; and Phoenix, Arizona, recipients of a $9 million grant; received more than Spokane.
The Fire Department, administration and City Council will need to look at ways to fund the new positions permanently, Schaeffer said. But it would be irresponsible not to accept the grant and make Spokane safer for two years, he added.
“With $9 million, for two years, we can have an incredible impact on people’s lives,” Schaeffer said.
The new staffing levels will not affect the city’s rating by the Insurance Service Office, which was recently maintained at a level 3, Schaeffer said. The office issues rankings from 1 to 10, with 1 being the best level of protection. A lower number results in lesser insurance premiums for residents.
Schaeffer said the department will ask for a reclassification, but getting a lower designation is difficult.
“With this part, we’re hoping to get Spokane to a ‘2,’” Schaeffer said.
Condon thanked Spokane’s federal delegation, including Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, for helping the city compete for the grant money at the national level.
“These are not easy grants to get,” Condon said. “We’re excited about this opportunity.”
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