The third time was the charm for the Payson Fire Department. After several unsuccessful bids, the fire department received word Monday it will get a $784,600 federal grant to hire six new firefighters.
Payson is the second Arizona fire department to receive a Staffing For Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) grant. In May, Hellsgate Fire in Star Valley got $607,000 through the federal grant.
Both departments plan to use the money to retain or hire more firefighters.
Payson Fire Chief Marty deMasi said the grant represents a huge win for the department, which has struggled to maintain staffing levels after building a new third station on Tyler Parkway.
For some time, the department has run fire trucks with two-man crews, instead of the optimal three or four. Studies show that injuries increase on two-man crews, which also take longer to complete essential tasks — like entering a home to rescue trapped occupants.
The manpower shortage has had a big impact. Department officials say they might have saved several homes if more firefighters were on duty, according to the grant application.
In July 2009, a large home in Chaparral Pines caught fire and flames quickly spread to two neighboring homes. When the first engine arrived, the captain put two firefighters on one side of the building while a second unit took the other side. While this three-person crew could see the fire was going into the structure, they could not enter the home to stop it, they lacked a safety crew on scene ready to rescue the first crew if things went wrong. According to standards, when two or more firefighters enter a building, they need at least two firefighters outside, ready to help in case of emergency.
“By the time additional forces arrived, the fire had taken possession of the interior and the structure was ultimately lost,” according to Payson’s SAFER application. “The addition of just one more firefighter arriving on that second-due unit very well may have allowed for an interior attack significantly decreasing structural damage and possibly saving the building.”
In the past two years, fire has claimed 12 Payson homes.
“A review of those incidents indicates that there were several opportunities where the addition of one or two firefighters on the scene may have made a difference between saving and losing a structure,” according to the grant application.
deMasi said the Payson Fire Department has always run short of firefighters.
The problem became especially acute after the recession hit, shrinking the town’s sales tax revenue. Assessed property values dropped an average of 30 percent in three years, state-shared revenues plummeted and grant funding all but dried up.
“The dismal housing market, unstable economy and alarming budget shortfalls at the federal, state, and local levels have hit our community hard.”
In response, the town reduced the department’s budget 9 percent from 2008 to 2011. Finally this year, the fire department’s budget increased $230,000 to $2.8 million.
Most of the money came from a mutual aid program after Payson ended a contract with Hellsgate Fire.
The termination of that agreement hit Hellsgate especially hard. Chief Gary Hatch was going to lay off four engineers, more than half the department’s paid staff, to help close a projected budget deficit of $176,000. The SAFER grant will not only save the jobs of all four engineers, who drive the trucks, but allow the department to hire a badly needed battalion chief.
In Payson, deMasi used the money he saved from the Hellsgate agreement to hire three firefighters.
“This situation is somewhat of a paradox, however, while we were able to increase the overall staffing level, the distribution of this staffing was diluted with the operation of the third fire station,” he said.
The department went from two stations staffed with three firefighters at each to three fire stations, one staffed with three firefighters, the others staffed with two.
Ideally, deMasi said the department needs 39 full-time equivalent firefighters.
“I don’t know, at least for the foreseeable future, that we will even get close to that number,” he said.
Currently, the department has 24 full-time and 13 reserve firefighters.
With the grant money, the department will hire six full-time firefighters/paramedics.
The starting pay for these employees will be $14 an hour.
After the grant runs out in two years, the town will have to find a way to cover those salaries.
“That is the 800-pound gorilla,” deMasi said.
This is the third year Payson Fire has applied for the grant and the first time it was chosen.