After slashing five firefighter positions because of budget challenges last year, Palo Alto is now preparing to revive them thanks to a federal funds.
The city has received a $3.66 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to support the salaries and benefits for the positions for three years. The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant is restricted to covering the salaries of new firefighters, whom the city is required to hire by February to retain grant eligibility.
According to FEMA, the grant was crated to provide funding "directly to fire departments and volunteer firefighter interest organizations to help them increase or maintain the number of trained, 'front line' firefighters available in their communities."
The grant spells a bit of good news for Palo Alto, which slashed its budget by about $40 million last year because of plunging revenues. While recent revenue reports show that the sales- and hotel-tax revenues are now on the rise, they remain well below prepandemic levels and the services that were cut in 2020 have not been restored. Earlier this year, the City Council recognized the city's long-term challenge when it eliminated about 70 positions that had previously been frozen, including the five firefighter positions that the city is now looking to bring back.
It also comes at a time when the council is increasingly concerned about the threat of wildfires, which have grown both more common and more devastating in recent years. Earlier this year, the city partnered with Santa Clara County Fire Department to fully staff Station 8 in the foothills and organize community meetings to discuss strategies for preventing and responding to fires.
The federal grant money should help alleviate some anxieties, particularly in light of recent budget cuts. According to a report from the Fire Department, the city applied for the grant this past March after FEMA revised the grant requirements to remove the requirement for local matching funds. The federal agency awarded the $3.66 million grant in early September, making Palo Alto the only Peninsula jurisdiction to receive SAFER funding. As of Sept. 10, the agency awarded 202 grants totaling $355 million, according to FEMA.
While Palo Alto is not required to match FEMA's funds, it does plan to spend about $105,000 for testing, the fire academy, training and uniform costs for the five firefighters, according to the report, which the council is expected to review and approve on Nov. 1.
City staff attribute the city's success in applying for the grant to its "strong labor-management and data-driven proposal that presented a compelling application."
"This is the first grant of this size the Department has received and we are proud of the accomplishments of staff and labor in successfully securing funding to restore service levels to the community," the report from the Fire Department states.
The grant also presents a challenge in that it requires the city to fill the five entry-level firefighting positions within 180 days. Typically, the hiring process takes between a year and 18 months to complete, according to staff.
To comply, the Fire and Human Resources departments have been making a "hiring list" of firefighters who could be employed by the February deadline so that it can take advantage of the grant funding.
While the grant covers salaries for three years, the Fire Department is hoping to bolster its finances on a more long-term basis with a new ambulance insurance program. The program, which the council formally approved on Oct. 18, will give all city residents the option of paying a monthly fee of $8 in exchange for free ambulance transport, should they need it. According to the city, patients with commercial insurance typically get billed about $650 for a single ambulance trip to the hospital.
The council approved the new insurance program on its "consent calendar" by a 6-1 vote, with council member Greg Tanaka dissenting.