Federal SAFER grant can help attract, retain firefighters

Program will pay for wide variety of incentives allowing volunteer departments to retain current members, recruit new ones

It's 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, and your pager has just alerted you that your department is being dispatched to a working structure fire in your first due area. As you respond, is one of the first thoughts to enter your mind, “Will we have sufficient manpower to handle this call effectively?”

If so, then you share this concern with hundreds of chief officers across the country. The NVFC reports that since 1983, the number of volunteer firefighters across the United States has declined by 10 percent. In some states, such as Pennsylvania, this situation is reaching a crisis situation. From 1985 to 2004, the number of volunteer firefighters in the state declined by nearly 50 percent.

The situation isn't much different on the career side of firefighting. With the economic downturn of the past four years, municipalities have watched their revenue streams decrease dramatically. One of the first decrees we hear from city managers and administrators is to lay off firefighters and close fire stations.

If either of these scenarios applies to your department, help is on the way in the form of financial assistance from the federal government. In a few weeks, we anticipate the opening of the 2011 Staffing For Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) grant program. This source provides funding to career, combination and volunteer departments to assist in answering their manpower concerns.

With regard to career and combination firefighters, the program will pay for hiring new firefighters and rehiring firefighters that have recently been laid off. SAFER will pay two years of salaries and benefits for newly hired or rehired firefighters.

On the volunteer side, the program will pay for incentives allowing volunteer departments to retain current members and recruit new ones. What incentives your department uses to accomplish this objective is in the hands of your organization.

For volunteers, SAFER is one of the most flexible government programs available to organizations to address obstacles they encounter in achieving their mission. Typical grant programs dictate that you can only apply for specific items within very strict guidelines. Under SAFER, this isn't the case.

Volunteer departments interested in applying for the program first need to determine the reason for declining membership numbers in their organization and then decide what incentives they could use to attract new members and retain existing firefighters. These incentives are strictly driven by your organization's needs, not some outside source.

For example, if you are experiencing difficulty in attracting or keeping younger firefighters, then you may want to ask for funding to establish a junior, cadet or mentorship program.

Another example to address this concern is the initiation of a live-in program. A number of volunteer stations are located in or near communities that have colleges or trade or technical schools. A live-in program could help pay these students' tuition expenses in exchange for their services in answering alarms.

For those departments looking to help retain existing firefighters, incentives such as health insurance, life insurance and length of service awards have been some of the more popular ones used to address this concern.

However, don't let these examples cloud your department's process in determining your needs and establishing a program to address those needs. One department conducted an assessment and determined that its barrier to attracting and keeping new members in their 20s and 30s was child care. Yes, that's right — child care.

The department found that people in this age group usually have younger children. Finding someone to care for these children while the parents attended training classes as a volunteer firefighter was creating a burden on the parents and thus negatively affecting the number of potential members from this age group. The department effectively stated its case in a recent SAFER application and was awarded funding to pay for child care.

The most important step in preparing a completive application for SAFER funding is to determine the barrier(s) your department faces in recruiting and/or retaining firefighters.

The equally important second step is to decide what incentives you can offer individuals in your area to overcome these obstacles and become firefighters.

If you are even remotely thinking of applying for the SAFER program, I highly suggest that you start your process today before the application period opens later this month. Good luck.

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