Iowa fire department gets grant to fill positions lost due to cuts

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By Kathleen Sloan

The Hawk Eye

BURLINGTON, Iowa — Burlington Fire Department Chief Matt Trexel got some great news, especially in the face of recent staff cuts.

First, he got a call from U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack’s office and then a call from state Sen. George Hartman’s office, and then he got the official letter from FEMA on Tuesday.

The department was awarded $500,000 from Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, which is known as a SAFER grant.

Trexel said it’s a very competitive grant, and only 10 percent of applicants are awarded. In Iowa, the only other award for this federal grant in this granting cycle was given to the Davenport Fire Department for $611,000.

West Burlington was awarded the same SAFER grant in the same amount about two years ago, but Trexel said the money is put to different purposes for volunteer versus career fire departments. Volunteer fire departments use the money to recruit volunteers, so West Burlington, for example, used some of the money to pay for college classes.

The Burlington Fire Department will use the money for hiring — three firefighter positions over two years — if the city council accepts the award, Trexel said.

Turning the grant down is a possibility.

“It happens rarely, but I’ve seen it,” Trexel said.

The SAFER grant used to require a city keep the positions added as a result of the grant for a number of years after it was awarded, essentially making the city match the grant award. That practice stopped in 2012, Trexel said.

Now the only requirement is the city maintains the same number of positions the department had when the award is given over the two-year life of the grant. If the city is planning to cut more fire department positions, this could be a problem, Trexel said.

“I’m really hoping city council will approve,” Trexel said.

“That will lock in the staff level for two years. Then the employees will feel a lot more secure in their jobs,” Trexel said. “This will be something that will hopefully get them to stay here. I’ve hired some real quality people, and I want them to stay.”

The department has 39 firefighters and three administrators. Among the firefighters, 30 are trained as paramedics, which can administer medications, start IVs and interpret EKGs. The other nine are trained as emergency medical technicians.

One of the major reasons the department got the grant is because of the number of runs it makes.

Trexel said they hired a consultant to help write the grant, and the consultant told Trexel the department’s run volume was higher than comparable departments.

On Friday, Trexel said the department responded to six ambulance calls and one illegal burn from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Trexel said the SAFER grant is given to cities with demonstrated financial need, but they also demonstrate plans to improve their finances.

The SAFER grant is to replace positions lost due to cutbacks, Trexel said. Three positions were cut from the department in 2012, he said.

The department’s call and run volumes, square miles served, population and response times also are considered in evaluating need, Trexel said.

The department applied in 2012, shortly after the staff cuts.

If the city council accepts the award, Trexel said it will bring the response teams up from 13 people per shift to 14.

The department happened to be advertising for a vacant position before getting the grant. It will take applications until March 28. On April 3 and 4, a basic aptitude test and a physical ability test will be given.

Trexel said the physical test usually proves harder for applicants than the written test. It mirrors the job requirements. Pulling hose, crawling and dragging a heavy mannequin, for example, are part of the test.

Trexel said applicants may go to three mock sessions before the actual physical test and hopes they will take advantage of the opportunity.

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(c)2014 The Hawk Eye (Burlington, Iowa)
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Distributed by MCT Information Services

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