By the time Thanksgiving Day rolls around this November, the Urbana Fire Division is expected to be operating at full force for the first time since January 2014 thanks to help from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
On Aug. 17, Fire Chief Mark Keller accepted from DHS the Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) grant for award year 2014 in the amount of $305,232, which must be used for hiring purposes only.
“The grant simply pays for the salary and benefits for two firefighters for up to two years,” Keller said. “It is a non-cost sharing grant, meaning that we do not have to pay a percentage of the cost for the firefighter positions with the exception of items that the grant will not allow. Those items include the firefighting gear, overtime, testing and hiring cost.”
Historically, Keller said, the UFD operates with a staff of 23 personnel, but for budget reasons, has been forced to make do with 21 individuals since the beginning of 2014.
While the loss of two personnel from a team of over 20 doesn’t appear to be that big of a deal, that’s not the case in Keller’s line of work.
“Firefighting is a team effort. When we have lower staffing levels, we have to do things differently to protect the lives and property that we protect,” he said. “While we are OK doing things differently, it can’t be at the expense of the basic protection we provide.
“We will still not meet, and never have, the National Fire Protection Association Standard 1710 for fire ground staffing which requires 15 firefighters arrive on the initial alarm of a structure fire within eight minutes, but we will be able to function like we have for the past 24 years,” Keller added. “We can only get up to seven firefighters there within that time frame, but it’s usually only five due to firefighters having time off.”
Knowing the importance of having two additional personnel on staff, the UFD has already begun its search for qualified candidates to fill the open positions. Keller said his department began accepting applications on Monday and will continue to do so until Sept. 25.
“Our estimated hire date will be around Nov. 16,” Keller said, adding once the two individuals are brought aboard, the grant requires the UFD maintaining its staffing at 23 personnel.
Back in February, city council gave Director of Administration Kerry Brugger the go ahead to submit the SAFER grant application to DHS on behalf of the UFD. At the time, Keller believed the odds were against the city considering it had been awarded the SAFER grant just a few years back in 2010.
Keller told council back on Feb. 3, “I’m not real optimistic, but I think it’s worth a shot. It’s a very competitive grant, so there’s no guarantee we will get it.”
The shot paid off, Keller said, in part because of help from those in Washington, D.C.
“We would like to thank our U. S. senators and representatives for their continued support with the federal grants we have received,” he said. “Without their support, we would not be able to provide the level of protection that we have been able to provide.”
Keller also acknowledged the community for standing by his department since the beginning of 2014 when the funds from the 2010 SAFER grant, which were paying for two firefighters, expired. Once the funding was exhausted, the department was unable to fill two vacancies caused by retirement, leaving it with a staff of 21 members.
“We would also like to thank the citizens of Urbana and the residents of Urbana, Salem and Concord townships who have shown their support for the Urbana Fire Division,” he said.
Joshua Keeran may be reached at 937-652-1331 (ext. 1774) or on Twitter @UDCKeeran.