Fairfield City Council voted Monday night, Nov. 25, 2019, against accepting a federal firefighting staffing grant, which would have required the city to add six full-time firefighters. GREG LYNCH/FILE

Fairfield turns down grant to hire firefighters as union disagrees

The city was awarded a $1.26 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant in September that would have allowed it to hire six new full-time firefighters and increase its minimum staffing levels per shift.

The grant required the city to provide $782,900 in matching funds and agree to not reduce staffing levels when the grant expired.

City Manager Mark Wendling said the grant would drain funds from the 2016-approved, 2.5-mill levy by 2023, requiring the city to consider a replacement levy two years earlier than anticipated. He said the city could subsidize the fire department by about $700,000, “and then it jumps after that to about $2.2 million in 2024 from the general fund.”

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The grant would have helped with the city’s concerns about staffing, which includes minimum levels on most days and part-time firefighters frequently hired away by other departments offering full-time jobs.

Fairfield Fire Lt. Jamie Viers, president of Fairfield Professional Firefighters Local 4010, said the union is “greatly disappointed” in Monday’s 6-1 vote (Councilman Ron D’Epifanio voted to support accepting the grant).

“Not only has staffing been a large problem over the past few years, but a solution was also presented to the city with this grant,” Viers said to the Journal-News. “Our primary focus is and will always be the protection of the citizens we serve and the safety of our personnel. We will continue to cooperate and work towards a solution.”

Fairfield Fire Chief Don Bennett previously told City Council that the department lost more than 100 part-time firefighters to full-time opportunities elsewhere, a trend likely to continueand the trend won’t subside. He said there are about a dozen area fire departments looking to hire about 40 firefighters.

“We need to shift the dependence on part-time people,” said Bennett, who added that the city will not go to an all full-time staffing model.

The city has 10 full-time and eight part-time fire department personnel per shift, or 54 full-time equivalents, to staff its three fire stations. The grant would have increased staffing to 12 full-time and eight part-time personnel per shift, or 60 full-time equivalents. The city employs 30 full-time firefighters (not including the two deputy chiefs and one chief) and nearly four dozen part-time firefighters.

Fairfield will have 5,300 to 5,400 medic calls in 2019, which makes up about 85 percent of its total fire department call volume.

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The city passed a 2.5-mill fire levy with 66.6 percent of the vote in November 2016, the first levy in 15 years. After the levy passed, the department underwent a staff restructuring, including promoting two firefighters to deputy chief, and set a goal to increase minimum staffing levels from 13 to 17 full-time equivalent personnel per shift. There are 14 full-time equivalent personnel per shift.

The city hired four new full-time firefighters in January 2018, several months after the city received and accepted an $810,000 SAFER grant in July 2017.

“Even with this positive sign of growth beginning in January of 2018, staffing levels were reduced in August 2018 and have never been returned,” Viers wrote in a letter to the Journal-News.

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