Federal grant helps Fresno hire more firefighters, raises financial questions

The Fresno BeeMay 18, 2014 

Fresno City Hall is warming to the idea of better fire service.

The true test comes next month.

The City Council last week agreed to accept a federal grant that boosts the department's minimum daily staffing from 67 to 71 firefighters.

The city kept all fire stations open during the Great Recession, but reduced minimum staffing to 1958 levels. Chief Kerri Donis said the council's decision on the grant sends a "big" message about commitment to better service.

The department "is very busy, with over 38,000 calls for service each year," Donis said. Saturday was a particularly busy day, with the department stretched thin fighting a three-alarm blaze at a vacant downtown packinghouse.

"Fire calls are just one of the calls we respond to, and we do that quite often," Donis said. "The reality is that fire is still a very real problem in our city, and even more so with these extremely hot and dry weather conditions."

Donis said the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant also enhances firefighter safety.

The two-year, $2.59 million grant will staff four engines 24/7 with four firefighters instead of three. The engines are assigned to busy stations.

The extra firefighter is pivotal in certain situations, department spokesman Koby Johns said.

Department practice is to send at least 15 firefighters to a residential fire and 21 to a commercial fire. That means more than one vehicle, engines and ladder-trucks.

It's inevitable that one vehicle (usually an engine) shows up first. The firefighters operate with a "two in, two out" rule. Unless conditions are extraordinary (people to rescue, for example), two firefighters won't go into a flaming structure unless two firefighters are outside.

This math doesn't work when the first vehicle has a three-person crew. The result: Early-arriving firefighters have less flexibility to go inside, often the best place to battle a blaze.

Fire officials have been pushing City Hall for years to rebuild staffing levels. The problem was money.

Mayor Ashley Swearengin on Tuesday is expected to unveil her proposed Fiscal Year 2014-15 budget. In a recent meeting with The Bee editorial board, she said the plan "lays a foundation of optimism in our community for years to come."

Swearengin said there is much to like about her $286.9 million general fund budget. It balances. It makes a big dent in internal debt. It adds four police cadets and retains the 30 added this year. It buys new public safety equipment.

More importantly, Swearengin said, her budget is a formula for reviving Fresno's municipal government.

The budget vigorously builds the general fund reserve through 2019 on the expectation that the economy continues to improve.

Swearengin said this will renew Wall Street confidence in City Hall's prudence, affecting credit ratings for enterprise as well as general fund debt. The budget also gives city leaders the means and the confidence to spend, Swearengin said. Not foolishly, she cautioned. Finances remain tight, she said.

This thought was reinforced Thursday when Assistant Controller Karen Bradley delivered the city's annual Comprehensive Annual Financial Report to the council.

Bradley said the report, written by staff but reviewed by outside auditors, once again contains a "going concern" paragraph. Such a paragraph means there is considerable doubt about Fresno's ability to continue as a "going concern."

But things aren't like two years ago when City Hall feared bankruptcy.

The SAFER grant will challenge council members when budget hearings begin in early June. Swearengin built next year's spending plan on a five-year timetable. She is looking toward 2016 when the grant expires. The spending discipline to fill that funding gap begins with her 2014-15 budget, she said.

Will the council agree with the mayor? Or will council members pursue other spending priorities that postpone hard decisions raised by the grant -- the "kick the can down the road" solution?

"We survived," Swearengin said. "But we're not out of the woods."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or ghostetter@fresnobee.com. Read his City Beat blog at fresnobee.com/city-beat.

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