Ashland to apply for $3 million federal firefighting grant

Ashland Fire & Rescue vehicles, at center and right, along with a Jackson County Fire District No. 5 vehicle, at left, stand by at Ashland Plaza on Tuesday, Jan. 11, while a helicopter carries a ventilation unit to the top of an Oregon Shakespeare Festival theater. Drew Fleming photo
January 19, 2022

Funds would go to hire six more firefighters in 2023

By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news

Ashland Fire & Rescue plans to hire six additional firefighters in 2023 if they are awarded federal funding to do so and then accepted by the City Council, some of whom raised concerns Tuesday about ongoing staffing costs after grant funds were exhausted.

The Ashland City Council went ahead and unanimously voted to authorize Ashland Fire & Rescue to apply for an approximately $2.9 million Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant that would pay for six additional full-time firefighters for the next three years and bring the department’s fire fighting response capacity up to national standards. 

The city has also entered into an intergovernmental agreement with Portland State University to study the viability and efficiency of partnering with Jackson County Fire District No. 5, which covers Talent, Phoenix, and unincorporated areas outside Ashland, for fire services.

Fire Chief Ralph Sartain told the council about the need for additional resources at Ashland Fire & Rescue.

“Our last ISO (Insurance Services Office) rating deducted 50% from Ashland Fire & Rescue because of inadequate firefighter staffing,” Sartain said. “Our recently completed cost services analysis showed that ambulance service was a complete benefit to the community, however our staffing for the fire department was inadequate.”

Fire District No. 5 applied for and was awarded the same grant and are in the process of hiring additional staff, according to Sartain.

“If we are successful in this grant application, we will be notified this fall and will be able to bring the firefighters on next spring,” Sartain said.

During discussion of the grant application, Mayor Julie Akins and city councilors posed questions about the long-term sustainability of hiring the additional staff, if awarded the grant,  given the structural deficit the city will have going into the next budget cycle.

“We are looking at right about $1 million in year four that we would need to generate to maintain these positions, and I don’t know what that would look like at that time,” Sartain said. 

If the grant is awarded and then accepted by council, the federal funds would set Ashland up optimally to partner with Fire District No. 5 to offer fire services in partnership, according to Sartain, a proposal which is still under consideration by both departments and cities. 

Ashland City Manager Joe Lessard, who started on Jan. 3, weighed in on the grant application as it relates to the budget, and the importance of hiring key firefighters while the city studies how to move forward.

“The key thing here for today’s item is we are requesting the grant approval for the six positions and we will have to try to manage the budget over the next 18 months so we can understand how we can control costs,” Lessard said. “But I think we have enough time to manage these grant positions and manage the department and come back with recommendations.”

Councilor Tonya Graham moved to approve the grant application. With the city’s aging population and the increasing escalation of climate change impacts, she emphasized the need to take action to ensure the possibility of an increase in fire services. Councilor Stefani Seffinger seconded the motion.

“There is no question that we are dealing with some structural issues, especially in our general fund and we have a robust process in front of us to work with the community to figure out those priorities,” Graham said. “But what is also clear is we do not have the staffing adequate for the calls that we already have.”

Graham said that anything the city could do in the short-term to increase staffing levels for fire services needs to be done, with the understanding that the city needs to look at how it’s  structured long-term.

“Going forward with this does not mean that we are are suddenly finished looking at how we structure these services and how we provide these services to our community, but in my mind, making this move and allowing our staff to go after this money is very prudent decision for right now because it doesn’t limit our options for what we might do in the longer term in terms of how we’re structured,” Graham said.

The deadline for the grant application to be submitted is Feb. 4.

Email Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at hollyd@ashland.news.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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