Ceres Fire Station #3 will reopen this fall with the city being awarded a $1.26 million federal grant to fund five new firefighters and retain existing grant-funded firefighter Will Dyer.
On Monday members of the Ceres City Council voted to accept the Staffing for Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant through the Department of Homeland Security¬ and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The grant covers a two-year period and firefighters who are hired by the funds may not remain employed after two years if the city cannot find the funds to retain them.
Recruiting is planned to start in November with the new firefighters coming aboard in late January.
This is the second time the city has been awarded the SAFER grant. When 2012 funds were expended in 2014, the city nearly issued pink slips to those whose salaries were funded by the grant, prompting firefighters to conduct a desperate public relations effort to bear pressure on the City Council to come up with the money. The council resented the effort but allowed fire personnel to craft creative ways to retain the firefighters. To make that happen, the council agreed to dip into Measure H tax funds by $100,000 as part of a way to cover the $393,000 expense for the remainder of the year to keep the six. The city also saved in overtime costs by "browning out" Ceres Fire Station #3, since it experiences the least call volume of all four stations. Call response times in southwest Ceres have not suffered, officials have said.
Mayor Chris Vierra issued a warning to the department to not expect the new firefighters to remain employed at the end of the two-year grant cycle.
"We will do everything that we can to try to find positions for these individuals as we go through the SAFER grant but harbor no illusion that if we cannot find positions for them this is a temporary position," said Vierra. "Although there was a PR campaign that went out that kind of made this body look like we were trying to get rid of firefighters, I don't appreciate that but I would not appreciate that happening again."
The council also took action on two other items that affect the department.
The first was to overstaff one fire engineer position to cover an employee who was injured on the job in 2008 and has been on worker's compensation since. Fire Chief Bryan Nicholes said the department has gotten by through the use of overtime but that it would be cheaper to hire a permanent engineer. He estimates the savings to be $25,000 annually.
If the original individual returns, the overstaffed position will be revoked.
The council also approved assigning Captain Jeff Santos to a new Countywide Fire Investigation Unit, which will operate out of Ceres Fire Station #3 due to its central location in the county.
Chief Nicholes said the unit is a way of share resources with neighbors.
"Over the years we have found, as fire investigation has become much more scientific in how we do it, that there have been cases that have been actually challenged and been basically thrown out because of the way the investigation's been done," said Nicholes.
Ceres Fire has had the luxury in years past of having a police detective assigned to investigate arson. That no longer being the case, he said the countywide team will be more important and help work with the District Attorney's office to prosecute arsonists.
Two certified investigators from Modesto Fire, one from Stanislaus Consolidated Fire and one from Ceres Fire will comprise the unit. One and a half positions from the District Attorney's office will be assigned to work with the unit.
About half of the county's arson investigations occur in Modesto.
The agreement to assign Captain Santos covers the period of Oct. 1 to June 30, 2016. The city will be reimbursed $121,500 by the count to allow the city to overstaff a captain position. The move creates a firefighter vacancy to be filled by interim assignments.
The unit will work one 40 hours per week position with the other shifts being two days on, four days off.
Another resource being loaned to the countywide unit is Chip, the fire investigation dog that was added in 2013 and which is handled by Santos.
The dog is trained to rummage through charred remains of a structure and to catch a whiff of any liquid or other item used to start a fire. The dog can specifically sniff for traces of gasoline, lighter fluid, charcoal starter fluid, brake fluid, thinner, turpentine, naphta, diesel, acetone and Coleman fuel.
The final action of the evening was to accept the SAFER grant.
SAFER grants provide financial assistance to help fire departments increase frontline Firefighters, retain Firefighters facing imminent layoffs, or fill positions that were vacated through attrition. The goal of the SAFER Grants is to assist local fire departments with staffing and deployment capabilities in order to respond to emergencies, assuring communities have adequate protection from fire and fire-related hazards.
"This is something that Ceres definitely needs," said Ceres resident and former state forestry firefighter Len Shepherd. "We need to move forward. We probably could, if we could afford it, fire another 10 fire staff and still be understaffed because for the size of our city and the size of our department we don't meet a lot of the other cities of our size around the country."