Cincinnati awarded $8M to boost fire department

CINCINNATI - Fire department officials hope to end brownouts and drastically reduce overtime spending by year’s end thanks to an $8 million federal grant.

The Cincinnati Fire Department was awarded $8,070,250 in grant money through a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response or SAFER grant award on Thursday, setting the table for a new 50-member recruit class by May.

Department officials said after six months of training, they hope to have the firefighters on the street by December.

By continuing to spend overtime, the addition of a newly graduated recruit class and another recruit class tentatively scheduled to graduate by late fall, the city and the fire department hope to eliminate brownouts and overtime spending entirely by year’s end.

The grant announcement follows Mayor John Cranley’s plan, under the advisement of Fire Chief Richard Braun, to allow the department to continue spending about $2.5 million in overtime to help virtually eliminate the existing five brownouts per day. Earlier this month, a 41-member recruit class hit the street, allowing the fire department to reduce brownouts.

“This won’t get us to zero, but it could get us to two, one or a lot of days zero,” Braun said earlier this month.

The new $8 million grant covers costs for two years, similarly to the grant that was awarded for February's 41-member class. February's academy class was “fully reimbursed by the FY 2012 Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) Grant,” according to the city’s FY 2014/2015 approved biennial budget.

After two years, taxpayers aren't left to foot the bill for added staffing, fire department officials said. As older, higher paid firefighters retire, younger and cheaper firefighters replace them.

About 25 to 30 firefighters retire every two years, and gone with them are their salaries. Fresh firefighters replace their older colleagues at a much lower cost. Rookie firefighters take home $47,471 per year, said Jennifer Speiser, fire department grant coordinator and spokesperson.

The department’s budget is a little less than $96 million, according to the city’s FY 2014/2015 approved biennial budget.

It requires 198 firefighters per day to staff all 40 pieces of equipment at the department’s disposal, Braun said. With brownouts, staffing is currently at 178 per day. The latest crop of fire academy recruits will add 14 firefighters per shift, reducing the number of brownouts per day to close to zero.

The district fire chiefs only brown out pieces of equipment located at 13 “double-housed” fire stations throughout the city, meaning they house an engine and ladder company, Braun said.

In December, Braun testified to the law and public safety committee the fire department’s response times “don’t even come close” to national standards, largely because of browning out of five of its 40 companies or 20 firefighters per shift.

The NFPA recommends a four-minute response time after the dispatch center receives a call. Braun testified fire department response times have increased by three minutes more than the national standard.

“The department no longer meets the minimum response time as required by the National Fire Protection Agency,” Braun wrote in his February report to the city.

The department has 26 engine companies, meaning trucks that can pump water, 12 ladder trucks and two heavy rescue units, which are specialized companies that conduct automobile extrication, trucks totaling 40.
Including February's 41-member recruit class, staffing sits at 828, 13 less than the department’s authorized strength.

“We need to increase our authorized strength number because that’s an old number,” Braun said. “We should be around 879.”

In 2007, the fire department’s authorized strength was increased to its current level of 841.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said federal funding is important for local departments facing budget woes, while still trying to meet the needs of the communities they serve.

“These new federal resources will help ensure that Cincinnati has the skilled responders and updated resources they need to safely do their jobs,” Brown said in a prepared statement. “With so many communities already facing budget shortfalls, critical federal efforts like AFG and SAFER are pivotal in keeping our Ohio cities, towns and villages safe.”

For more crime and justice stories by Kareem Elgazzar, visit www.wcpo.com/elgazzar . Follow him on Twitter at @ElgazzarBLVD

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