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Turlock to seek grant for additional firefighters
Turlock firefighters
The City Council approved the Turlock Fire Department applying for a federal grant to hire nine new firefighters (Photo courtesy of TFD).

Turlock Fire officials want to add nine more firefighters to their ranks to more efficiently respond to calls.

This week the department asked the city council for permission to apply for a federal grant that would provide just under $3.1 million to fully fund the hiring of nine additional firefighters for three years.

Chief Andrew Hunter went before the council on Tuesday and made the case for pursuing the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant that would help TFD achieve minimum staffing standards, starting in fiscal year 2024-25.

The council approved the request by a 4-1 margin, with councilmember Kevin Bixel (District 1) casting the lone dissenting vote.

The department operates with four engine companies staffed with three firefighters and one battalion chief, totaling 13 personnel on duty each day. 

“Earlier, I mentioned the need for increased staffing levels within the city of Turlock to adequately respond to fires. And the No. 1 thing mentioned at that time was 16 bodies,” Hunter told the council. “Currently, within the city of Turlock we have 13 bodies that arrive at a fire. To make up that difference, that’s where we take advantage of the opportunity that we have with our partners and we call additional companies or fire resources down into to Turlock to assist with that response to help us meet that minimum standard. That’s great for getting that total count on scene, but where we come up short is the time that it takes for them to get here. Fires can grow very quickly; there’s also the chance that a second call could come in. So, as we look for opportunities to see how we can address this need, the SAFER grant is one of them.”

Typically, the grants are awarded between July and September. If awarded the grant, Hunter would come before the council again and ask that the members vote to accept it.

Councilmember Cassandra Abram (District 3) mentioned that a study conducted by Folsom-based consulting firm Citygate Associates recommended that TFD staff a fifth company to better handle simultaneous emergency calls. Abram wanted to know how the nine potential new firefighters might fit into that scenario.

“Let’s say today we magically had the money to staff a fifth company,” said Hunter. “We still need bodies to fill those positions. We need trained people that are adequately prepared to assume the role of captain and engineer to supervise the company and to drive and operate the equipment. What this grant does is puts us in a better position and gives us three years to prepare for a potential opportunity to staff a fifth company.”

The program is administered over a three-year period through a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) contribution of $3,089,880 toward salaries and benefits annually over that period. That excludes overtime costs and personal protective equipment, which Hunter said would cost the city about $85,000, but could be expected to last 10 years if properly maintained. At the conclusion of the grant’s life, if the city chooses to retain the nine firefighters, the city would then responsible for salaries, overtime costs, and benefits moving forward. 

“At the conclusion of the grant, there is no requirement the city maintain personnel,” said Hunter. “But we don’t want to offer employees positions within the city if we don’t have some reasonable expectation that we might able to retain them at that time. There are a lot of variables between now and three years from now.”

Abram also pointed out that if nine firefighters are added, it is not the long-term expectation to continue with four-person companies, but rather return to a three-person companies.

“The biggest advantage for a city of Turlock’s size is to have more companies that can go to a call, as opposed to more people on (fewer) companies that can go to a call,” said Hunter. “If we don’t apply for this grant or if it’s not awarded, we’re still going to face the same problem in the future if we do have funds to staff another company. We’re still going to need to train up personnel to take on those leadership responsibilities. The SAFER grant is a big part in subsidizing that process.”

Bixel explained his problem with pursuing the grant.

“Personnel is the highest expense we incur as a city,” said Bixel. “It’s salaries, it’s retirement, it’s benefits. And I think we have to be mindful about what free money will cost us in the long run.

“I don’t hear people concerned about their fire department getting to their fire. I do hear from people who are concerned about the first response to a life-saving emergency. I know that the biggest percentage of the fire department’s calls are emergency-medical in nature. I personally feel that’s where we need to be directing our funds and increasing our level of service. And I would like to see that be part of this discussion before I would be able to support it.”