Smithville Fire Chief Charlie Parker was questioned by Mayor Taft Hendrixson Monday night why he chose to apply for a FEMA SAFER Grant for the hiring of full time firefighters when it appears that the city may not qualify for such a grant
During the March 5 meeting, the aldermen gave their blessing for the fire department to make application for the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant, which if approved, would fund the hiring of firefighters for up to two years at no costs to the city.
At that meeting, Chief Parker told the mayor and aldermen that the city would be under no obligation to keep funding the positions locally after the grant funds are exhausted. "The grant is a two year total grant and it would be for hiring full time personnel. It would go up to a max of $230,000 for salary supplements for that two years. That's the maximum amount. That doesn't mean that we will get the full amount but it could be up to that for personnel. If we do get it, it will still need to be accepted by the board," said Chief Parker.
In order to beat the filing deadline, Chief Parker apparently applied for the grant before asking the mayor and aldermen and sought approval after the fact.
During last nights (Mondays) meeting, Mayor Hendrixson said he had checked with FEMA and Congressman Diane Black's office and learned that the grant, for which Chief Parker applied, has no chance of being approved since it was for rehiring laid off firefighters, retaining firefighters who faced imminent layoff and or filling positions vacated through attrition. Smithville has an all volunteer fire department.
Mayor Hendrixson asked Chief Parker why he chose to apply for a FEMA grant ostensibly to pay full time firefighters when the city had a better chance of obtaining another grant for funding the recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters. "I took it upon myself to contact FEMA in Washington. We have zero chances of getting this grant (applied for by Chief Parker). It did not even go before the review board according to my contacts through Congressman Black's office," said Mayor Hendrixson.
"The recruitment and retention grants assist fire departments with the recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters who are involved with or trained in the operations of firefighting and emergency response," he said. "These grants are intended to create a net increase in the number of trained, certified, and competent firefighters capable of safely responding to emergencies likely to occur within the grantee's geographical area. One hundred percent funding is provided for periods up to four years on this one (recruitment and retention grant)."
"What I'm concerned about is they told me in Washington that from looking at our grant, we would have had a good chance of getting this recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters (grant). We have zero chance of getting this other one. They've already told me," said Mayor Hendrixson.
"For the benefit of your rank and file members. They (city firefighters) get paid twenty dollars per call (currently). Had we gotten this other grant, they might have gotten forty, fifty, or sixty dollars a call depending upon how much money you got (from the grant). They could have had more training. You could have provided insurance packages such as accidental death and dismemberment, disability, health, dental, and life," said Mayor Hendrixson.
"I've heard you (Chief Parker) say many times that its hard to recruit firefighters. This (grant) is a tool that will help recruit firefighters. You can recruit them or you can pay the ones already here. If you recruit a man, you can reimburse a member while he (recruit) is attending basic training, fire training, compensate for lost wages, mileage, lodging, and a per diem," he said
"Marketing costs (can be met) to recruit new members. In other words, (grant could fund) billboards, newspaper ads, radio advertisements. We could have paid for a station Internet, computers and common areas. It would have paid for that," said Mayor Hendrixson.
"Station duty uniforms for new recruits, pants, shirts, hats (could be paid for with grant funds) and non uniform clothing as part of an award program. If you get new recruits, it would have paid for a physical. It would have even paid for their turnout gear. It would have paid for any new turnout gear. Not for the ones that are here but for the new (members)," he said.
Mayor Hendrixson said money from a recruitment and retention grant could even provide yearly bonuses to city firefighters who complete training programs, just as the county firefighters receive. "I know the county does this and they're enjoying this grant right now. If their firefighters complete all their training sessions, they get a $400 bonus out of this grant. There's an awards program for participation in operational activities, length of service plaques, gift cards, mileage reimbursement for operational activities, responding to incidents, and attending training," he said.
"I can just see a lot of benefits for your men and for the department and for the city as a whole by applying for the other grant that would fit us as a volunteer department," said Mayor Hendrixson.
Chief Parker said it was his understanding that the grant for which he applied did include funding for the hiring of new firefighters, if approved, and he confirmed it after checking further during the meeting. "I went back to the FEMA 2012 eligibility guidelines and it says that the following entities are eligible to apply directly to FEMA under this solicitation. Volunteer fire departments may apply for funding in the following categories: Hiring the firefighters category. Hiring career firefighters. Second category. Recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters. If the applicant wishes to fill an application for both categories, two separate applications must be completed for each. This is in the 2012 guidelines and this is what I went by to the best of my ability. That was what we were shooting for, full time people. We've already got some (firefighters) who are compensated. They are not well compensated but we have some compensated volunteer firemen now. We're looking to hire some full time people and progress a little further. So in the best interest of my department and the city, that's the reason I was pushing for full time firefighters. If we get free money, fine. If not, we'll try to push forward and if not we'll stay where we're at,"he said.
Chief Parker also asked the city to make a better effort in the future in assisting the fire department in obtaining grants. "I would like to make a formal request that we look for fire department grants from this board. We need grants for automated external defibrillators (AED's). We need AED's for each truck. We could use grants for turnout equipment. We can use grants for things on the trucks. Anything that we can apply for in a grant, I would be more than welcome for the board to do so or get somebody else to do it. Somebody has got to look for them," he said.
Alderman Gayla Hendrix defended Chief Parker saying it never hurts to apply for grants for which the city might benefit. "Chief Parker came to us with this. He explained very clearly that it was a last minute resource. That he had received a letter from Congressman Black encouraging volunteer fire departments to apply for that. He told us that. He also told us we were down to the wire and that we may be able to get it or we may not, but what's it going to hurt to apply. It never hurts to write a grant. I haven't read the entire grant but what you (mayor) just handed to us, I totally disagree with your interpretation Mr. Mayor. It specifically says the purpose of these grants is to improve or restore local fire departments staffing and deployment capabilities in two categories. Number 1, hiring firefighters. Number 2, recruiting and retention. He applied to hire. There are very few fire departments anymore in this country that are strictly volunteer. Those days are almost over. We're very fortunate that we have these people who are willing and who have fifteen, twenty, and thirty years of experience doing it. Anytime something is brought to a department head's attention that there's a possibility of getting funding for their department, its never a bad decision to try. We may get turned down but we've been turned down before. But you try and you put it out there and see what you can get. Its going to come a day when we're going to have to start staffing this volunteer department," said Alderman Hendrix.
Chief Parker told WJLE later that the mayor had requested that he attend Monday night's meeting, but he was not told for what reason. The issue was not listed on the regular meeting agenda.