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September 18, 2020

$8M for firefighters: Washington Co. gets federal grant

Credit: Herald Mail-Media, Mike Lewis

Washington County will receive more than $8 million to hire 33 full-time firefighters who will help volunteer companies respond to emergencies.

The money is part of $14.76 million in federal funding for Washington, Frederick and Garrett county firefighters announced Wednesday by U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, and U.S. Reps. Jamie Raskin and David Trone, all D-Md.

“It’s incredible. It’s a great feeling,” R. David Hays, the county’s emergency services supervisor, said in an interview Wednesday. 

The money comes through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant.

“I’m truly excited and really just appreciative of the opportunities our system has given us through this grant,” Hays said. “It creates a safer environment for the responders and the public.”

The SAFER grant will fund up to 33 firefighters over the next three years. When the new positions are filled, the county will staff 53 full-time and 25 part-time career firefighters, according to a news release the county issued after the award announcement Wednesday.

During the three years, the county will be responsible for covering changes, such as raises, in the firefighters’ compensation, Hays said. And after three years, the firefighters’ salaries will become the county’s responsibility.

In years past, SAFER grants required matches from local governments. Typically, a SAFER grant covered 75% of the cost during each of the first two years and 35% the third year, according to Hays.

But the match requirement was waived because of stress put on local budgets by COVID-19. Hays said that will mean a “significant” savings for local taxpayers.

As a result of that waiver, the county’s initial grant request of about $5 million rose to the awarded amount of $8,080,776.

A majority of the commissioners previously agreed to increase the county’s income-tax rate from 2.8% to 3.2%, in part to help pay for full-time firefighters.

Hays said the additional firefighters will allow for a regional system that will improve coverage throughout the county. 

The plan calls for staffing three firefighter positions around the clock at four stations — Clear Spring, Leitersburg, Sharpsburg and Williamsport. Those stations were chosen based on their locations and the ability to respond to calls as quickly as possible, Hays said.

It takes more than three people to fill one around-the-clock position.

The plan also provides for an around-the-clock firefighter at the Hancock station and the 24/7 county paramedic position at the Rohrersville station, he said.

The county has to finalize some paperwork before it can begin the hiring process, he said.

This was the second time the county has applied for a SAFER grant in an attempt to hire paid firefighters to help community fire companies, many of which have been struggling for years with recruiting and retaining volunteers.

On Wednesday, Hayes stressed that the new firefighters will will augment, not replace, the current volunteer system. He said volunteers remain vital.

“We are not today or at any point in the future that I can see replacing volunteers,” he said.

Jeff Cline, president of the Washington County Board of Commissioners, thanked the lawmakers for their efforts.

“Although our county remains strong in its dedicated volunteer workforce, we recognize the demand that today’s society places on them,” Cline said in the news release. “Today’s family, work and social environments have created challenges with balancing the needs of emergency responses, fundraising and administrative duties that are difficult for volunteers. The addition of 33 career firefighters under this grant represents one of the many steps the commissioners have taken throughout the years to augment the volunteers’ efforts.”

The lawmakers also announced Wednesday that the SAFER program awarded nearly $5.6 million to Frederick County to hire 22 full-time firefighters and about $1.1 million to support recruitment and retention activities for Garrett County’s 11 volunteer fire departments.

SAFER is a competitive national program. It provides funds for hiring, recruiting and retaining front-line and volunteer firefighters to increase number of firefighting units responding to emergencies.