By Chris Teale (File photo)
Just months after coming under fire for an ill-conceived ribbon-cutting ceremony for a fire station with no firefighters, city council unanimously voted to release the $1.3 million set aside in the fiscal 2016 budget last week, ensuring an engine at Station 210 would be up and running by December.
Fire chief Robert Dube told councilors that after a number of interviews with potential new firefighters, he was confident the engine could be staffed before New Year’s. The money appropriated by city council will be spent on hiring 20 overhire firefighters for the West End station, with the recruiting slated for a September start date. Were there not enough recruits by fall, the opening date of the engine would be pushed back to March 2016, but Dube was adamant that a December opening is achievable.
Officials came in for some criticism in April when the station opened with a medic unit, paramedics, a fire truck and other facilities but without any firefighters to staff the engine. In 2014, officials planned to pull staff from Station 204 in North Old Town to provide fire suppression by the new station’s opening, but backed down after community opposition. As it turns out, there are plenty of recruits interested in staffing the station, something that gives councilors cause for optimism.
“We put out a call, we had a little bit of a look at the applications and see the qualifications, and I think the fire chief felt a lot better about the less squishiness of the application pool,” said City Councilor Justin Wilson, referring to a previous budget meeting in which he described the number of applicants for 210 as being “squishy.”
“We had a lot of applicants who had the FEMA certifications already; the question was, ‘Can we find some who are already certified and we don’t have to go and train them,’ which would take more time to get them ready,” he said. “Based on their read of their applicant pool, they felt a lot more confident that they were going to have the applicants. Still, we have to send them all through the vetting process [and] background checks, but based on their initial read, it looks pretty positive and we can stay on track.”
Adding funds in reserve to the 2016 budget was key, as city councilors wanted to make the process toward staffing the station as transparent as possible for residents. Wilson, who on the dais proposed temporarily keeping the $1.3 million in reserve, said it ensured that plans to staff the station were formalized and that council could keep up a heavy involvement in the matter.
“We wanted folks to really understand, because I think with a lot of West End projects and initiatives, there’s not always clarity, there’s not always transparency,” said City Councilor John Chapman. “[It’s important] that folks know that something is getting done, in what timeframe, what the resources we’ve used are. Those in the past have been in question for some of the projects and initiatives we’ve done on the West End.
“If we had set aside funds and could knock this out whenever those funds are able to be used, people who are budget hawks or anybody that’s watching the city budget wouldn’t necessarily be able to track where the funds were. They could see where they were used, but it wouldn’t be easy. This way is very straightforward, at least from my feeling it was straightforward, how we are using funds, what the timeframe is going to be, when West Enders can expect things to be fully in place, I think that was part of it too. It’s not only about the dollars; it’s about the timeline for having that staffing in place.”
Another option to staff the station was to cross-train medics as firefighters so they can operate fire apparatus, but the matter was complicated by more first responders retiring than the fire department had anticipated. In the end, the overhire option was selected as the quickest way to get the engine online.
“There were a few options, and I think that the biggest option for us was the timing of it,” Chapman said. “We really felt that the overhire method was the fastest one. We wanted to react to what we knew was an issue and make sure we were responsive so that we could get staffing in place as quickly as possible. The other options were a lot longer out, where we wouldn’t even have staff until 2017. Something like that for us is unacceptable, knowing that we have an issue here.”
Given the population growth of the West End in the last few years, fire suppression capabilities are something that councilors are pleased to see.
“This is one of the first new stations in the West End in a long time, and it provides an area of coverage that is growing,” said Chapman. “Eisenhower Valley is definitely growing and definitely needs that response, and the southern part of the city definitely needs that coverage or additional coverage because of the amount of people and the density we have in the West End. It’s a little bit different in terms of the makeup — everything is not as spread out as it is in other parts of the city, everything goes up. We have a lot more people than I think folks realize based on the space out here.”