Four Hellsgate firefighters will keep their jobs after the fire department received word on Friday that it is one of a handful of districts nationwide to receive a federal grant.
Fire Chief Gary Hatch earlier this month sent termination letters to four engineers, more than half the department’s paid staff, to help close a projected budget deficit of $176,000.
The department has already done without a battalion chief since May 2010 to help curb costs.
Now the just-received federal $607,000 Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant will not only save the jobs of all four engineers who drive the trucks, but allow the department to hire a new battalion chief.
Since laying off Doug Blazer, the chief’s assistant, Hatch has been on-call
continually, acting as incident commander for every medical and fire call. Hellsgate provides fire protection in Star Valley and a host of smaller communities.
“Being selected for this grant is a tremendous accomplishment. I applaud our amazing staff that put this together and all their efforts,” Hatch said. “This funding will help us continue to provide the safe and effective response that our citizens have come to expect from Hellsgate Fire Department.”
Payson had also applied for a SAFER grant, hoping to use that money to fully staff its third fire station. Ironically, Hellsgate’s financial crisis this year was provoked in part by Payson’s decision last year to open that third fire station. Payson canceled its $160,000 annual payment to Hellsgate to provide backup coverage in the area of the private country clubs at the eastern edge of Payson once it opened the station. However, when Payson failed to get the SAFER grant, the town shifted to many two-man crews and a greater reliance on volunteers.
Hellsgate’s SAFER grant, distributed over two years, will allow the department to keep its staffing levels at eight full-time firefighters.
Two of those engineers are also paramedics and two are EMTs.
While the department has a small, full-time staff, it has a robust group of dedicated volunteers.
Most trucks run with at least four firefighters on every call, Hatch said.
Two are full-timers and two to three more are reserves.
While not required to wait in the station for calls, most reserve firefighters elect to spend their “on-call” shift with the team.
Hellsgate has a long history of volunteer service. Volunteers started the department in 1982. Hatch worked several years as a reserve and was the districts first full-time paid employee in 1992.
As call volume increased, the department gradually added staff.
Love of community
Today, with five reserve firefighters finishing training soon, the department has 34 volunteers.
While on-call, reserves make $1 an hour. Based on training, reserves make at least minimum wage when working medical and fire calls.
With the department responding to an average of 1.5 calls a day, each lasting roughly 1.5 hours, the average reserve firefighter makes $58 for every 24-hour shift.
“They don’t make a lot of money,” Hatch said. “They are doing it because they love the community.”
Nearly a dozen of Hellsgate’s reserves have gone on to work full-time for other fire departments.
If Hellsgate had not received the SAFER grant, Hatch said he would have been forced to pull money from the district’s capital improvement fund to finance salaries.
That money would have run out after a year.
“We probably could have made it through one more year, but we would have spent all of our savings and then we would have been in jeopardy of losing even more employees next year,” he said. “What this does is it allows us not to have to lay off people.”
Hellsgate was selected from nearly 2,000 SAFER applicants, and as of today, is the only department in Arizona to receive the grant.
“Being selected out of that group is pretty impressive,” he said.
With the money Hellsgate has saved in its capital improvement fund, it plans to build a new station in Tonto Village.
“We have to build a new station in Tonto Village — it is falling down around us,” he said.
The district’s board recently approved buying a new fire truck after one of their engine’s motors went kaput.
It is the first new vehicle since 2003 and only the third new engine since 1982.
Hellsgate’s budget woes started several years ago when the recession hit. With dropping property values, tax revenue also plummeted forcing the fire district to up its assessed property tax to the state maximum.
Even with the increase, the department’s revenue has come up short due to increasing costs in fuel, insurance, equipment and supplies.
This is one of the largest grants Hellsgate has ever received.