Fire personnel cut; leaders at odds on funding

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Grant money to pay additional Salisbury firefighters expired on Wednesday, meaning personnel were cut, but officials insist it won’t jeopardize safety.

A dozen additional firefighters were paid, for the past two years, by a Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Known as SAFER, it meant the city received $1.4 million, applied for in 2011, to pay for “12 uniformed firefighter-emergency medical technicians,” according to the mayor’s office.

Mayor Jim Ireton said this week that nine of the temporary hires have become full-time city employees, due to others’ retirement and attrition, and that he wouldn’t approve a budget amendment to make up for grant funds.

“The firefighters were never hired in perpetuity. We hired as many as we can of the original. I just hope the grant survives the Republican budget cuts that are looming in 2015,” Ireton said, referring to the possibility of the grant being renewed next year.

The goal of adding firefighters was to decrease emergency response time, but  it increased  by 1.5 seconds, said Jake Day, president of the Salisbury City Council.

“That is not measureable, according to the agency the fire chief worked with … (but) the major reason was to have faster response time and they wanted to pull out to calls with a crew of four,” Day said.

 “But we’ve operated for a decade or more with three per crew. This (adding more firefighters) was supposed to give us the four per crew. I don’t know if it kept us at four per crew. I do know the response time did not improve with extra firefighters,” he said.

Because the grant could be renewed in February, Day said he would support a budget amendment to replace the money until then, but Ireton refused.

“We could transfer funding from one public safety agency, police, to another, fire, without adversely affecting any police employees,” Day said.

“The mayor said, ‘This is a grant. The grant’s up and that’s it. That’s how grants work.’ Technically, he’s  right,” Day said.

He said transferring money to pay for the additional firefighters “wouldn’t be the right thing to do because it would be terrible management of business.”

“It would be mismanaging funds, and the only reasons to do that would be if you could make a justification,” he said.

That justification could be because there is money in the budget to pay new police officers, but those positions haven’t yet been filled.

But Ireton said the extra firefighters were always meant to be temporary.

Day said city residents are safe, regardless.

“I’m not worried about how many firefighters we have, not at all. We have one of the biggest joint agencies statewide — volunteer and professional — and any of those gaps could be filled with volunteers,” he said.

Day said some of the extra firefighters would be laid off, and that several are considering jobs in the police department and have begun testing to be hired there.

A request of Ireton’s public information officer to interview Fire Chief Richard Hoppes was denied.

Instead, it was answered with the e-mailing of the news release from Oct. 7, announcing the SAFER grant had been extended six weeks.

Chris Demone, the public information officer, said the mayor deemed the press release “the official statement.”

Hoppes did not return calls seeking comment.

Contact Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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