Local fire departments are taking to social media websites and cable television this spring in their ongoing efforts to recruit additional volunteer manpower.
Residents responding to the sidebar ads on their Facebook pages or the commercials appearing in between “Law and Order” reruns may be pleasantly surprised.
As of August 2011, all six volunteer fire departments in Inyo County have been drawing from a pot of federal grant funding that provides firefighters, EMTs and engineers with benefits above and beyond the traditional, $10-$25 per-call stipend.
Ranging from 401K contributions to accident/injury insurance to health savings accounts, the benefits are earned by volunteer firefighters on a month-to-month basis and available for new recruits after their first month with a local volunteer fire department.
Funding for the benefits comes from a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant awarded to Inyo County last year by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
As its name implies, the SAFER grant is intended to put money directly into the hands of fire departments in order to increase the number of trained firefighters and emergency response personnel in their communities, according to FEMA.
The grants are part of a program launched by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security after Sept. 11, 2001, in order to help ensure adequate staffing, training and preparedness among local first responders.
Inyo County departments – Bishop, Big Pine, Independence, Lone Pine, Olancha-Cartago and the Southern Inyo Fire Protection District – were awarded a total of $997,000 to use on recruitment and retention efforts over the next four years.
“This is a huge achievement for Inyo County,” said Aletia Powers with the Redden Group, which is administering the grant on behalf of Inyo County’s fire departments, as well as the grants of 12 other departments in eight states.
Indeed, added Greg Redden, while the SAFER grant may seem tailor-made to Inyo County, there is stiff nationwide competition for the funding from similarly challenged fire departments. And the application process is rigorous. “Only about 25 percent of the applications make it through,” he said.
In addition to helping the fire departments meet the various reporting requirements set by FEMA, the Redden Group is responsible for the just-launched marketing campaign that also includes print ads and posters in storefronts from Bishop to Olancha. (SAFER grants come with a portion of funding dedicated specifically to administration and marketing expenses.)
Olancha is where Inyo County’s grant application originated, and the Redden Group was there from the beginning.
As recently as two years ago, the ranks of local volunteer fire departments had dwindled to the point that for the first time in decades, California’s third largest county was at risk of losing vital emergency response services.
“We were having a lot of attrition and a lot of turnover,” said Olancha Fire Chief Steve Davis. Older volunteers were retiring and new recruits were almost non-existent, with retention not much better. “We were having trouble keeping our staffing up to sustain ambulance services, which, with the exception of Bishop, are provided in all communities by volunteer fire departments.” (Symons Emergency Specialties provides EMS in the Bishop area.)
Between the six departments, they’re essentially responsible for fire and ambulance response over a 10,140 square-mile area. Within that swath of land is a population of about 18,500 permanent residents, according to the latest U.S. Census, and on an annual basis, about 5.5 million visitors and travelers, according to the Inyo County Sheriff’s Department.
And between those six departments’ two years, there were about 100 active-duty volunteers to respond to structure fires, wildland fires, medical emergencies, hazardous material spills and other emergencies.
Lone Pine Fire Chief Le Roy Kritz teamed with Lone Pine Adult Education to offer EMT classes with modest success. Twenty-two residents completed the last course offered in 2011; only 12 went on to take the national exam that would qualify them for duty as certified EMTs, Davis said. As extra incentive, organizers had offered to refund $100 of the $110 course fee to anyone who provided proof of passing the national test.
Davis, meanwhile, had read an article about the SAFER grant and Redden Group in a publication for a state firefighters’ association and immediately saw the potential for Inyo County.
“Initially I met with all the fire chiefs in the county, individually and collectively, and when we decided this was something we wanted to do” Davis enlisted the help of the Redden Group in preparing and submitting the grant application for SAFER funding – a service the consulting firm provided at no charge, he said.
Gregg Redden gives much credit to Davis for the amount of work he put into the application on behalf of all six volunteer fire departments.
“It’s a long application, with a long narrative portion,” Redden explained. “Steve had to do a lot of research to submit the application.”
Part of that research entailed determining exactly how many volunteer firefighters would be needed to bring Inyo County departments to sufficient staffing levels; in other words, to provide the grantors a quantitative measure for success.
Each chief was essentially asked how many volunteers their department needed to support training operations, operate and maintain equipment and reasonably handle call volume while also staying within the boundaries of what their department’s insurance policies would cover.
The Olancha department, for example, can reasonably support 20 volunteers; it had about 15 at the time the grant application was submitted.
Based on input from all departments, Davis determined at least 170 active volunteers are needed to effectively respond to the call volume in Inyo County.
The grant application was submitted in late 2010 and in April 2011 Davis was notified the Inyo departments would be receiving just shy of $1 million.
The next step, with the Redden Group’s help, was establishing a committee that would set the guidelines for benefit eligibility. According to Davis, while FEMA requires the establishment of eligibilty guidelines, it was just as important to the chiefs that these benefits were earned by the volunteers based on their contributions to their departments.
It was equally important to the chiefs that it be the volunteers themselves who determined what the eligibility standards were, which is why the countywide committee is made of volunteer firefighters.
The specific requirements vary by department, according to Powers, but essentially set the expectation in writing via Memorandums of Understanding that, in order to receive SAFER benefits, a volunteer must attend a certain number of trainings and department meetings, respond to a certain number of calls and so forth.
As of now, 120 volunteers are enrolled in the SAFER benefit program. Their eligibility is monitored by the chiefs, who submit monthly reports to Davis, who submits them to a contracted payroll company that disburses the benefits based on the volunteers’ meeting of department standards.
So far, the response among the volunteers has been positive and promising.
“We’re seeing a higher level of participation and from what I’ve seen, we’re not losing people like before,” Davis said.
In fact, volunteer numbers are on the rise since the program went into effect last August.
In his department alone, two new recruits have come on board with a third pending.
“That’s a significant increase percentage-wise,” Davis said. “If all departments have that same success, we’re going to meet our goal.”
Two new recruits have also been added to the ranks in Independence; countywide, chiefs have fielded a total of 19 inquiries.
Davis and the Redden Group are optimistic this is just the beginning.
“Our hope, goal and intent is to not only get up to 170 volunteers, but by the third year of the grant, be able to renew it for another four years and keep this going,” Davis said.
Anyone interested in finding out more about SAFER benefits and serving their communities through volunteer fire departments may call the department nearest to them, or visit volunteerfirefighter.org. The website includes a link to Inyo County, where a brief form can be filled out to indicate interest in serving; a local fire chief will then respond.