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Ashland seeks grant to hire firefighters

Ashland Fire & Rescue secured City Council approval Jan. 18 to apply for a $2.9 million grant to fund six firefighter positions for three years.

In December, the Federal Emergency Management Agency notified AFR of a window to apply for the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant program, which requires staffing numbers to remain consistent for the three years of funding, according to Ashland fire Chief Ralph Sartain.

The fire department’s latest Insurance Services Office rating dropped 50% for inadequate staff — an issue further supported by the results of the ambulance service analysis, Sartain said.

According to the analysis by Public Consulting Group, low staffing reduces firefighter safety and increases hazard mitigation time and the potential for civilian casualties.

Currently, with a minimum eight staff from AFR and six staff from Jackson County Fire District No. 5 (automatic aid), emergency response for a 2,000-square-foot home with no basement or exposures and an aerial apparatus assignment comes with four fewer firefighters than required per national safety standards for deployment, Sartain said.

“Between the two of us, if we are at minimum staffing, we’re able to produce 14 firefighters at the scene when we need 18,” Sartain said.

Out of a 17-applicant pool, only two recently passed through the hiring process to background checks, Sartain said. AFR obtained approval last summer to fill three firefighter positions — left vacant in response to the pandemic in 2020 — leaving the department still lacking the personnel necessary to align with national standards after filling the slots.

District 5 received a SAFER grant last year and aims to bring new personnel on board by May. If AFR secures the award this year, hiring could begin next spring, raising firefighting response up to national standards in 2023, he said.

The SAFER grant is intended to help departments increase or maintain the number of trained firefighters available in their communities and improve compliance with staffing, response and operational standards, according to council documents.

Sartain said a continual increase in overlapping calls for services has left the department with zero or one response unit available in the community about 43% of the time.

AFR requested Mercy Flights for services in Ashland 169 times in 2021, resulting in 71 transports, because no units were available. Given a staff of nine, AFR’s third ambulance could have handled those transports, he said.

“That means we were waiting for an ambulance to come from Medford or, depending on where they came on those specific days, could be as far away as Shady Cove when they were leaving another call,” Sartain said. “We are getting farther and farther behind our calls for service.”

AFR sent its ambulance to assist in Mercy Flights’ jurisdiction as well, “but they’re helping us far more than we’re helping them at this time,” Sartain said.

In discussion during the Jan. 18 council meeting, councilors considered budget structure and costs in year four, at which point the city will need to generate about $1 million to maintain the positions and $90,000 for overtime.

“Award recipients have no obligation to retain SAFER funded positions at the end of the three years, but it should be assumed that the positions will remain, and future secured funding should be planned to keep these positions,” according to Sartain’s council memo.

Receiving the grant and adding six staff members would “strengthen” the department’s position as a potential regional partner with District 5, he said.

The grant covers salary and benefits for six firefighters over a three-year period. Overtime costs not covered by the grant were estimated at $71,000 in year one, $77,000 in year two and $83,000 in year three based on current average hours per employee and step wage increases — covered by a minimum $233,000 coming from the coordinated care organization component of the Ground Emergency Medical Transportation program, accessed through the ambulance service, Sartain said.

First-year costs also include about $40,000 for uniforms and equipment, according to council documents.

Responding to questions from Councilor Gina DuQuenne about the feasibility of recruiting volunteers through the grant instead of hiring staff, Sartain said a volunteer format would require additional resources, including a training officer and full-time position focused on retention and recruitment, and funding for personalized equipment and training to meet the same standards as professional firefighters.

“We will have to try to manage the budget over the next 18 months so we can understand how we can control costs,” City Manager Joe Lessard said, as councilors raised budget considerations. “I think that we have enough time to manage these grant positions and manage the department and come back with recommendations.”

A motion to approve the grant application passed the City Council unanimously. Councilor Tonya Graham said inadequate staffing for current call volume, building development proposals, an aging population, and escalating fire danger due to climate change made the case for more staff, “with the understanding that we are going to have to look at how we’re structured.”

“Allowing our staff to go after this money is a very prudent decision for right now because it doesn’t limit our options for what we might do in the longer term,” Graham said.

The application is due Feb. 4, and the department will be notified next fall regarding the award. From the time of notification, AFR would have six months to hire six firefighters.

Reach reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.