Chico Fire Chief Bill Hack explains the funding will last until January, and in the meantime the department has hired a firm to conduct data analysis to see what a town like Chico needs in terms of fire service. This information from this report will help the department decide how to best go forth without the grant money. Emily Bertolino — Enterprise-Record
Now, 15 firefighters face the prospect of losing their jobs after grant money runs dry around the beginning of January. The mood, interim Fire Chief Bill Hack said in a recent interview, has been somber.
The Fire Department learned on Sept. 30 that it was not awarded a new Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant, which is funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Hack said. Following that decision, the department has been preparing options for the City Council to consider in early November.
While Hack would not disclose all potential options before councilors get a chance to read them, some obvious ones exist.
The council could opt to not add money to the department’s budget, which could result in layoffs. Or it could choose to keep staffing levels exactly where they are, which would likely mean adding a little less than $1 million to the department’s budget this fiscal year.
Hack said there could be various staffing-level options in between.
The Fire Department received the SAFER grant in 2014, following budget cuts and job losses suffered during the Great Recession, according to the department. The grant funds 15 positions and did not require any matching funds from the city.
The Fire Department’s current staffing includes 65 line firefighters and four chief officers.
Since the grant was awarded, the department has been able to maintain a minimum daily staffing level of 17 firefighters, Hack said. Response times have been reduced, community dollars lost due to fires has fallen, and the department has been able to staff a rapid-response squad for anticipated high-service days such as Halloween or St. Patrick’s Day, among other improvements.
When the grant was approved by the City Council in February 2014, officials said firefighters promoted or hired would understand they could be demoted or fired when the grant expires.
That has held true, Hack said. New hires were told their positions could be temporary, and the last 15 people who have been hired have received potential layoff notices.
The fire chief said officials understood from the beginning that it wouldn’t receive an endless amount of grant money.
“From day one we’ve been planning on what we’re going to do when we no longer have the grant,” Hack said. “So one of the things that we’ve done — the city has done — is they looked at how we most efficiently and effectively run the fire department.”
To that point, the Fire Department this year has undergone an efficiency study conducted by an outside firm, Hack said. Analysts conducting the study, referred to as a standards of response coverage analysis, pored over years of department data and assessed the potential and demonstrated risks of the community the department serves.
Fire officials anticipate the results of that study, which is expected to guide the city and department for at least the next few decades, to be finalized in the first weeks of December.
Historically, Hack said, departments that undergo such studies are recommended to cut their minimum daily staffing levels.
“The bottom line is, if there are fewer firefighters than the recommended minimum daily staffing from the standards and response coverage, we’re still going to provide the best coverage that we can,” the fire chief said.