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Researchers study affordable housing solutions to retain Ariz. firefighters

Arizona University’s Economic Policy Institute will working with Central Arizona Fire and Medical Authority on firefighter retention



Abigail Kessler
The Arizona Daily Sun

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Over the next year, a team from Northern Arizona University’s Economic Policy Institute will be working with the Central Arizona Fire and Medical Authority (CAFMA) in Prescott to look at housing solutions that could help with firefighter recruitment and retention.

The project recently received a Regents’ Community Grant from the Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR). It was approved by the board on June 15.

Although Prescott and Flagstaff have different housing needs, it is a factor in both struggling to retain firefighters. According to the institute’s director, Nancy Baca, firefighters often will train with the department before moving to the Valley, where the cost of living is lower in some areas and wages may be higher.

With the grant, NAU researchers will be looking at ways to respond to those retention issues by addressing the area’s housing needs and by trying to recruit more locally.

“We are finding that, in some Arizona communities — especially those like Flagstaff that are landlocked or Prescott that has become a large second-home community — as we see prices increase, it makes it more difficult to hire and retain safety personnel because of budgetary issues,” Baca said. “There’s kind of a standard salary for those jobs, and a lot of times they get priced out of the housing market, because they become transplant communities, retiree communities or second-home communities.”

“What we’re finding is that smaller communities like Prescott, like Flagstaff are putting in the dollars to train recruits just to lose them one year, two years down the road to the larger metropolitan areas who perhaps can pay more for better hours,” Baca said. “The cost of housing is incredibly different in those locations as well.”

Unlike Flagstaff, Prescott’s housing supply is growing, according to Baca. Its population is also growing, however, creating a greater need for safety personnel like firefighters. That growth can also make it more difficult for certain workers to afford to live there, contributing to the fire department’s staffing difficulties.

While the area has more supply, those houses are mainly being sold to those who are moving from other places or buying second homes, who can afford a cash offer or a higher price.

“There’s lots of housing and that housing drives the need for more safety personnel, but housing does not provide affordable housing for the safety personnel,” Baca explained.

She added: “As the number of homes increases and the number of people in the city increases, that increases the need for additional safety personnel and fire stations and things like that, but isn’t helping address the issue of affordability of housing for those personnel,” she said. “So they have an interesting issue in that the need for safety personnel is growing, but the hiring and retention is becoming more and more difficult.”

CAFMA serves about 106,500 residents of Prescott and its surrounding areas, according to the grant, with the City of Prescott Fire Department serving over 45,000 residents of the city. Together, the two organizations serve more than half of Yavapai County.

A grant executive summary from ABOR’s June meeting notes that CAFMA has between 33 and 38 openings, with the majority (23-28) being operational positions.

“In the next three to five years, it’s predicted there will be 25 to 50 new positions, plus another 15 for two new fire stations,” the summary said. “Many applicants cannot find options to live in the region and either do not apply or leave shortly after receiving extensive specialized training at a cost of approximately $100,000.”

NAU’s project will be studying a number of questions related to both the staffing and potential solutions for recruitment and retention, including housing solutions. The Regents’ Community Grant provides $57,560 in funding, with NAU providing another $47,060 in matching funds.

In early July, Baca said, NAU researchers were already working to analyze data and find “creative solutions.”

Most of the data collection and analysis is planned for this summer, with a final report expected in May 2024.

It will include analysis of other cities with similar sizes and problems, looking at housing and retention solutions they’ve attempted and whether these might work in Prescott. They’re also exploring sustainable recruitment methods, primarily looking at ways to hire people already living in Prescott or the surrounding tribal communities who won’t need to find housing before starting work.

Other efforts Baca listed as part of this study include providing workforce development support and exploring various training programs for the departments and financial literacy education to give those new recruits a better idea of what to expect, financially, when living in Prescott.

“We take it for granted that firefighters will be ready to respond when our loved ones have medical emergencies or fires break out,” ABOR Chair Lyndel Manson said in a press release. “The reality that firefighters often can’t afford housing in the communities in which they work is troubling and not tenable for the future. This grant is designed to offer solutions to this issue so firefighters can focus on what matters most — fighting fires and saving lives.”

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