Two Sarpy County cities in the midst of expanding their fire departments hope the federal government will provide $4 million to cushion the cost of hiring full-time firefighters.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency offers grants to cover firefighter salaries and benefits, giving priority to financially distressed cities and departments that are weighing layoffs or have already cut staff.
Although hiring is a local responsibility, the grants are one way the federal government gets involved in paying for firefighters, police officers and teachers.
Since 2007, paid and volunteer departments in Nebraska, including Omaha, Lincoln and Ralston, have received more than $6 million in federal firefighter grants for hiring and volunteer recruitment.
Cities and fire department across the country will compete for $320 million in two-year grants. Federal sequestration budget cuts reduced the amount of funding available for FEMA state and local grants by $104 million this year.
Papillion and Bellevue applied for a smaller pool of money in the lowest priority category: funding new hires.
The Papillion Fire Department, which recently agreed to take over fire coverage for all-volunteer La Vista, is seeking $1.8 million from the FEMA program. It would cover the salaries and benefits of the 12 additional firefighters the department will hire to staff the larger, 67-square mile area.
The Bellevue Fire Department, which is transitioning from a part-time to a full-time department, applied for a $1.7 million grant to cover the costs of adding 12 full-time firefighters.
The 2013 grant deadline was Aug. 30.
“That's the lowest priority, and that's the difficulty we're all in,” Bellevue Battalion Chief Joe Gibilisco said. “We're being drastically cut, but we're asking for new firefighters and we're in the fourth lowest tier.”
Grant awards through the SAFER program — which stands for Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response — are intended to help departments meet National Fire Protection Association staffing standards and provide 24-hour fire protection.
In past years, FEMA has doled out huge awards — $22.5 million in Detroit, $16 million in Philadelphia, $15 million in Trenton, NJ — to allow cities to rehire scores of firefighters for departments shrunk by budget cuts, layoffs and retirements.
Bellevue faces a catch-22 this year. The cash-strapped city, dealing with a $5 million budget hole, may resort to closing one of its four fire stations each day to save money, a move fire officials say could drive up response times to a dangerous degree.
Still, the city plans to begin hiring full-time firefighters after the Legislature pushed it to switch from a volunteer to a paid department.
The department has struggled with turnover as part-time firefighters leave for better-paying jobs in cities like Omaha, Gibilisco said. The city plans to hire 63 full-time firefighters over the next five years, but the current budget crunch could throw those plans into jeopardy, Gibilisco said.
“There so many things on the table right now with trying to deal with the budget difficulties,” he said.
Securing a grant could ease those budget concerns, Gibilisco said.
Bellevue's application for $1.7 million would cover the full salaries and benefits for the 12 firefighters, who would make $43,680 each in the first year of the grant and $44,990 in the second, plus benefits. Successful grant applications must show financial need and the positive impact more firefighters would have on public safety.
In Papillion, the expected uptick in calls from La Vista will require an accompanying increase in manpower, and Papillion officials hope a grant could offset the costs.
“The budget works without the grant,” Papillion Fire Chief Bill Bowes said. “We're not dependent on the grant, but obviously if we can get close to $2 million in federal aid for the firefighters that will certainly help everybody's budget over the next two years.”
Financial projections for the new department calculated the cost of fire service both with and without a two-year federal grant.
With the grant, the three entities served by the department — Papillion, La Vista and Papillion Rural Fire district — would pay a total of $7.4 million for fire protection in the 2013-2014 budget year.
There's one catch for Papillion's application. Papillion needs to start hiring in March to enroll its new recruits in its three-week training academy before the department begins covering La Vista on April 1.
If the grant isn't awarded by then, Papillion will have to hire its new firefighters anyway and forgo the federal hiring money. The grants can't be applied retroactively if hires have already been made, Bowes said.
“That's really the big question mark about it,” he said.
Papillion received a $632,550 SAFER grant in 2007 to hire six new recruits. The new grant would fund firefighters at a salary of about $45,000 each, with an additional $25,000 to $30,000 for benefits.
Both cities would have to pick up the tab for the new hires after the grant expires in two years.
“We have it planned to absorb those costs into the budget in future years,” Bowes said.
Absent from the current grant round is Omaha, where officials were considering laying off firefighters and sidelining equipment to close a budget gap.
Mayor Jean Stothert told fire officials that the city would not apply for SAFER funding this year over concerns that staffing maintenance requirements could force Omaha to maintain staffing levels throughout the grant's duration — taking layoffs off the table through 2015.