The Athens City Council is being asked to consider action that could add personnel at the city’s fire department.

At Monday’s study session, Athens Fire Chief Brandon Ainsworth presented council members with the details of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant program. The program was created to provide funding directly to fire departments to help them increase the number of firefighters available in their communities.

At its inception, the grant program provided 75% of the funding for the positions for the first two years and 35% of the funding in the third year. Last year, this was changed to cover 100% of the funding for three years with no local match required.

According to an Oct. 6 memorandum from Ainsworth to City Manager C. Seth Sumner, “the Notice of Funding for 2021 has not been released. At this time, we are not certain what the requirements will be of the 36-month performance period.”

If approved for the grant, the city would be required to maintain the staffing levels and incur no layoffs during the three-year

period. The city would have 180 days from the date of the grant award to complete the recruitment/hiring process.

The Athens Fire Department (AFD) is considering applying for the grant to fund nine or 12 firefighters. The need for additional staffing was identified in a recent Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS) study, as well the city’s recent ISO audit.

The current city budget cannot support this additional staff. In his memo, Ainsworth said the goal would be to maintain the higher staffing level at the end of the grant period. This would increase department staffing from 24 people to as many as 36.

“This grant is an opportunity to get us started where federal government dollars are paying for it and then the city would take over (after three years),” said Ainsworth at the study session.

If awarded the grant, the AFD would be able to add three or four firefighters per shift. Three would staff the city’s ladder truck and the fourth would serve on Engine 1. The city’s ladder truck is currently unstaffed and has an average response time of 16 minutes by off-duty response personnel.

Ainsworth said he expects the grant period to open later this year.

“If it’s something that we’d want to do, I’d like to be prepared,” said Ainsworth in asking the council to allow him to apply for the grant.

Assuming the city is approved for this grant assistance, Ainsworth said it would likely be about a year before the additional staffing could be put in place.

“This is the direction that we know from the staffing study we need to move in for the fire department,” added Sumner.

Sumner noted the the city would need to expand its available bunk space to accommodate the additional personnel. This expansion is included in the initial designs for improvements at city hall. He also noted that the timeline associated with the grant would give the city adequate time to make these improvements.

“It also buys us three years for us to build financial capacity to continue those operations,” said Sumner, referring to the city continuing to fund these potential employees when the grant period expires.

Vice Mayor Mark Lockmiller and Council Member Frances Witt McMahan both expressed interest in continuing to employ these firefighters beyond the grant period. Witt McMahan asked if these positions could be sustainable beyond the initial, grant-funded, three-year period.

Sumner and Ainsworth said they have spoken extensively about this with Finance Director Mike Keith. Sumner said that the city’s growth patterns indicate that the resources could be available to sustain these positions.

“There’s no guarantee, of course … but we feel strongly that this is a good opportunity for us to get to that point in three or four years and we are trending toward that,” said Sumner.

The council appeared to reach a consensus in support of Ainsworth’s pursuit of this grant.

Email: andy.brusseau@

dailypostathenian.com

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