By Maria Rachal
Local residents will soon enjoy greater fire protection at no additional cost thanks to a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Lexington Fire Chief Ty Dickerson was notified in August that the city would receive a Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) grant worth nearly $500,000 over the next two years. The grant will cover salary and benefits for four new firefighters and require no matching funds from the city.
The SAFER program, a $350 million fund administered under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is designed to help fire departments meet staffing, response, and operational goals, as determined by the National Fire Protection Association. The Lexington City Council unanimously accepted the grant at an Aug. 18 meeting.
The announcement came a year after Dickerson and the City of Lexington initially applied for the grant but were denied.
The Lexington Fire Department serves not just the city but a little over 50 square miles of Rockbridge County. Dickerson said the staff typically responds to eight to 10 calls per day, with 249 calls in August.
With the four additional firefighters, Dickerson said, the number of paid fire staff will grow to 16, along with 20 volunteers.
“The current size still doesn’t meet any of the industry standards,” Dickerson said. “If we were
going to meet the top of the line industry standard, we’d need about 18 people on duty at a time … and that’s financially not practical for us, so we’re working on goals and steps to reach better staff, and these four folks will help us do that.”
But Lexington property owner Russ Orrison, who owns a Randolph Street home that caught fire last February, said that despite the unfortunate circumstances, he was satisfied with the fire department’s response.
“They responded immediately and made sure everyone was out and got the fire out,” he said. “I certainly can’t complain at all about the service that we got from the fire department as it existed at the end of February.”
Still, Dickerson hopes the department will continue to grow, and his first goal is keeping the four firefighters on staff after the grant expires.
Lexington City Manager Noah Simon said that adding $250,000 to the city’s annual budget would be a challenge. He said the first step will likely be applying to renew the grant for a third year. “
Right now infrastructure, roads, things like that are our priority. So there are a lot of things that will go into that analysis as we inch closer to the end of that two-year grant cycle,” Simon said.
Simon said that finding a way to maintain even one of the four grant-based staff members would improve the quality of the fire department.
That’s not to say that the city has ignored the fire department’s desire for growth. In fiscal year 2017, fire and emergency medical services accounted for 9.7 percent of the general fund budget, and Simon and the Lexington City Council added two lieutenant positions to the department, the only staff increases in the entire operating budget.
The fire department will be accepting applications for the four positions through Monday and Dickerson hopes the new personnel will be working by late October or early November. With the staff additions, he hopes the department will be able to have four or five people on duty during each shift, which would mean one fire engine and one ambulance could be staffed at all times.
Regardless of what kind of budget agreements the fire department and the city council come to in two years’ time, Dickerson says he is glad to have received positive community feedback about the grant.
“We’re constantly looking to be creative, to be cost-effective and efficient,” he said. “The citizens are very happy that we found a way to increase staff size without raising taxes.”