Over the next six months, the Warwick Fire Department will bring aboard 17 new firefighters to give the department a full complement of 214 and enable the city to reduce overtime costs. It’s all thanks to a $3.1 million federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant.
In preparing this year’s budget, the administration talked about the grant, and how it could help overtime costs that exceeded $3 million in the last fiscal year, but they did not count on it completely. According to Diane Brennan, city financial analyst, the administration projected funding for eight firefighters.“It’s going to be helpful,” she said. Because the department is currently running a training program, Chief Edmund Armstrong said he does not expect another training session to start until the first of the year. Training takes 18 weeks, meaning the added personnel would not be in place until April. Armstrong was surprised and pleased to win a grant for 17 firefighters. He credited the success of the process to the work of the mayor and the support of the Rhode Island Congressional delegation. The grant works in two ways to reduce costs – it pays for the salary and benefits for the additional firefighters and reduces the amount of overtime needed to maintain manning levels for all shifts. Armstrong wasn’t able to predict what it might amount to other than the grant will pay 17 salaries and benefits for the next two years.
Mayor Scott Avedisian said Friday that the department currently has 14 openings and another 15 “on the books and we weren’t filling them” for a total of 29 shy of 214.
The announcement was made Thursday in a coordinated release from U.S. Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse and U.S. Representative Jim Langevin.
“This is great news for Warwick and I congratulate Chief Armstrong and his team and Mayor Avedisian,” Reed said. “We call on our firefighters in moments of crisis and they always answer that call. The hiring of additional firefighters will improve emergency response capabilities. Ensuring the Warwick Fire Department can maintain appropriate staffing levels will also help save money in the long run by reducing overtime costs.”
Reed, a member of the Appropriations Committee, wrote the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in support of Warwick’s application. The impetus for the grant came from five younger firefighters who volunteered their time as a grant writing committee, said Avedisian. In praising their efforts, Avedisian said “they worked really hard to make sure we got what we needed.” Overtime costs are driven by minimum manning requirements set by contracts that leave the administration no choice but overtime. In an agreement reached earlier this summer, firefighters increased their health care co-payments to an equivalent of about 20 percent while taking a 3-year pay freeze. The agreement did not change manning requirements.
“At a time when our cities and town are facing major fiscal constraints, this funding will be critical to ensuring the Warwick Fire Department has the resources to respond to emergency situations,” Langevin said in the release. “As we face difficult decisions about the makeup of the federal budget, our first responders must be a top priority.”
Whitehouse also stressed the significance of the SAFER grant.
“A fire department’s greatest asset is skilled frontline firefighters,” said Whitehouse. “At a time when many towns and cities are facing layoffs and cutbacks in critical services, this funding will help Warwick create good jobs and improve public safety.”
SAFER funding is a competitive grant program that is administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in cooperation with the U.S. Fire Administration.
This is the second major federal grant Warwick has received this year. In March, Warwick Fire received a $683,451 Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) to purchase a new aerial ladder truck to replace a 23-year-old vehicle.