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Nicholes: Plan to save six firefighters working
SAFER grant still hasnt reopened
Ceres Fire Station #1 in downtown Ceres is one of three stations from which calls are answered. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

The city doesn't expect Washington D.C. to make an announcement until January about a federal grant that could help the city pay for six firefighters it nearly let go of in September for a lack of funds.

Acting Fire Chief Bryan Nicholes told the City Council on Monday that the city is still waiting to see if the SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant will be opened and funded. In the meantime, a plan to cut expenses in order to keep paying the salaries of the six will continue.

The city snagged a two-year SAFER grant in 2012 which allowed the city to hire six firefighters on a temporary basis. When the grant funding dried up, however, firefighters pressured the council in September to find ways to keep the six employed. To make that happen, the council agreed to dip into Measure H 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 is saving in overtime costs to be used for the salaries by "browning out" Ceres Fire Station #3, which experiences the least call volume of all four stations, and using existing personnel to cover shifts when they become absent. The overtime costs have dropped from $32,899 to $4,972 per pay period.

"It is working," said Nicholes. "It's not honestly where we were hoping to be but we're looking to try to keep within the boundaries that you set for us and we're able to keep these ... six firefighters on as long as possible."

In September City Manager Toby Wells said that to make the plan work, the city needs to realize a savings of $43,500 per month to keep the six.

Other expense trimming includes not participating in strike teams for forest and wild land fires because it tends to drive up overtime that may or may not be reimbursed.

Concerns about the department's response time to Station #3 area calls have not been a significant problem, Nicholes told the council. Of the 661 calls for service between Oct. 1 and Monday, 49 were in the Station #3 response area and averaged response times. Thirty-four times the response was over five minutes. That's not unusual, said Nicholes, since the response time for 214 calls was over five minutes long in the areas outside the Station #3 area.

"Some of those were for non-priority calls," said Nicholes. "Twelve of those calls were actually mutual aid to other agencies."

The city nearly released firefighters Gregory Selvera, Vince Milbeck, William Dyer, David Steenburgh, Chris Steenburgh and Rui Carapinha on Sept. 22 because $1.03 million in SAFER grant funds were gone. The city hired the six with the caveat that the jobs were offered only as long as funding was available.

City officials are hopeful that the federal grant re-opens. Ceres stands a good chance of getting a retention grant to renew funding.

Keeping the six firefighters allows Ceres to have three-man engine staffing at three stations. A two-person engine company is at Ceres Fire Station 3.