Guilford Town Officials Accept SAFER Grant
Guilford residents packed into Fire Headquarters on Oct. 16 to offer comments and hear discussion on the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s (FEMA) Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) program. The grant allows the Guilford Fire Department to hire eight new firefighters, but does come with a cost to the town. The Board of Selectmen (BOS) ultimately decided the benefit of new firefighters outweighs the additional cost and unanimously accepted the grant.
The town received the grant in September and has to formally accept the grant by Oct. 22 to receive the money and begin the hiring and training process. The federal grant is $1,560,526 and will cover 75 percent of the cost of the new firefighters for the first two years and 35 percent in the third year, after which the town will pay for the firefighters. Cost estimates suggest the new firefighters would cost the town approximately $1 million a year starting in fiscal year 2021.
The eight new career firefighters would be in addition to the existing 37 and would be concentrated in North Guilford. Assistant Fire Chief Mike Shove said with the new hires he can put two more people on per shift, which would help reduce the emergency response time to the northern part of town. Currently, it takes about 12 minutes for an ambulance to get from Fire Headquarters near I-95 exit 58 to Lake Quonnipaug. For those who live north of the lake, the response time is even longer.
“There are parts of Guilford that you actually have to go into Durham to get to, so there are some challenges,” said Shove of the town’s geography. “The national average and recommendation is having an ambulance arrive on scene in less than eight minutes. That is our goal.”
This is the second time the town has received a SAFER grant. The first was received in 2008 and led to the hiring of eight emergency personnel at the time. With this grant, the department has 180 days from the date of acceptance to begin hiring and then have everyone working by April 22, 2018. The timeline is tight and there will be budgetary challenges because Shove said this year’s Fire Department budget is already lean and does not have extra cash to pay for gear, uniforms, and training for the new hires—a total of roughly $105,672.
Members of the BOS said that those savings can be found. First Selectman Joe Mazza also pointed out that due to the time of the hiring, the new employees will not have health benefits in this fiscal year and will not go on the pension plan as the town has steadily moved toward 401 defined plans over pensions for new hires across all departments.
“It is money well spent and living on the border of North Guilford, I have experienced how long it takes to get an ambulance up there,” said Mazza.
Shove said the department will continue to look at efficiencies to keep costs down and mentioned that while the grant requires eight hires be made and kept for a year after the grant expires, if after that period is over and data suggests not all eight are needed, that number can be revisited. Shove said by having full-time, budgeted staff, the department can hopefully start to cut back on its overtime costs.
Board of Fire Commissioners Chair Ken Wilson thanked residents who expressed support for the grant and said the department did not apply for this just because it would be nice to have some more firefighters. In addition to all comments made at the meeting, the selectman’s office received 46 letters in support of the grant and only one in opposition.
“We are seen as a very proactive fire department in general and I think the other thing that is important is that we have identified that we have a need,” he said. “This isn’t a wish list, this is a must. We have a need to have additional fire staff…We at the end made the decision that this a need for Guilford and on top of that not only do we think it is a need, but the federal government believes based on our application that we have a need and they are willing to support us.”
All selectmen seemed to agree with the need, but acknowledged that the budget increase when the grant expires will be a challenge. Selectman Cindy Cartier said that things can be done with the budget to achieve savings when the time comes and said increasing emergency services in town is necessary.
“What we do know is we have a declining population over all and studies have shown that specifically in Guilford…however what we are seeing is an aging population of those remaining and that is where the ambulance services and emergency personnel is needed,” she said. “There is going to be an increased need in those types of services…To me this is a no-brainer from a services perspective—I think we just have to find the savings elsewhere.”
Due to the town’s geography, Mazza said everyone in town will benefit from having more emergency personnel on call.
“I have been saying this since I took office: The prime duty of the first selectman and the Board of Selectmen is the safety and the protection of its people,” he said. “I am in complete support of this.”
The Board of Selectmen unanimously approved the grant.