By Scott J. Croteau
The Telegram & Gazette
WORCESTER, Mass. — The Fire Department will receive a $2.2 million federal grant that will allow the hiring of 17 firefighters at a time when the department expects to lose as many as 20 members by August.
U.S. Sens. John F. Kerry and Scott Brown, with U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern, D-Worcester, made the announcement yesterday in a news release. The city will receive $2,227,387 over two years as part of the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant program.
"I am most grateful to Sens. Kerry and Brown, Rep. McGovern and Chief (Gerard) Dio of our WFD for their efforts and for their continued leadership on behalf of our great city," City Manager Michael V. O'Brien said.
According to the release, the national program's goal is to enhance fire departments' abilities to comply with standards put forth by the National Fire Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
"This is a moral issue, pure and simple. Our firefighters put their lives on the line every day and we've got a fundamental responsibility to keep them as safe as possible," Mr. Kerry said. "This investment will allow Chief Gerard Dio to enhance the department's ability to respond to emergency situations quickly and effectively."
Mr. O'Brien is putting forth a budget to the City Council tonight that shows the city will fund 389 firefighter positions. The grant money would allow the department to bump that number up to 406. Every firefighter hired over the 389 staffing level will be paid through the new federal stimulus money.
In November, the city is losing federal stimulus money that it used to return the laid-off recruit class of 16 firefighters. Those 16 positions are funded in the proposed fiscal year 2011 budget.
The city needed to find $1,634,000 to pay for 24 police officers and 16 firefighter positions in fiscal 2011, which starts July 1. Federal stimulus money funding those positions ran out in November.
Mr. O'Brien said the budget recommendation going before the City Council shows funding sources for those positions.
"We are managing these grants with the knowledge they are going to run out. Over time and through attrition we are prepared for their expiration," he said. "Our hope is this gives us a measure of stability as the national, regional and state economy improves eventually having city and state revenues able to annually fund those positions."
Last summer, the Fire Department closed companies and redeployed personnel. The desired staffing level was at 406 although the department is running at 385 positions.
In a December letter to the city manager, Chief Dio said the department was not in compliance with OSHA and NFPA standards. The chief says the grant will put the department back in compliance.
Chief Dio said yesterday anywhere from 15 to 20 firefighters are expected to retire by August. The city hopes to bring on new firefighters by the end of summer/beginning of fall. The city will bring on a new class of firefighters to fill vacant positions with 17 being paid through the grant.
"Hopefully we'll get them on by the summer by the time the exodus of individuals we assume will retire occurs," Chief Dio said.
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