August 30, 2014
Cortland Fire Department considers future of ‘bunker’ program
As the city fire department faces a critical volunteer shortage, it is hoping to use unspent grant funds to extend its bunker program, which provides a housing stipend to volunteer firefighters who work 30 hours of shifts a week.
The program, funded by a $535,598 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is set to expire in April, said Fire Chief Charles Glover. But the department hopes to use some of the grant money that has not been spent to keep the program going into 2016, Glover said.
The department is waiting for FEMA to pay current costs of the program so it can be determined how much money will be left over and how long the program could continue to be funded, he said.
If there is enough money to continue the program through 2016 as the department hopes, FEMA would have to extend the time on the grant since it is scheduled to expire in 2015, Glover said.
Glover said the bunker program is a cost-effective way to staff the department with enough interior firefighters, especially during the overnight hours. Interior firefighters are those that have taken additional training to be qualified to fight fires from the inside of a burning building.
“Because manpower during the first five minutes of a fire is where we’re critically short and where the biggest impact on a fire is made,” Glover said.
Currently the fire department does not have enough career or volunteer firefighters to meet safety guidelines, Glover said. The National Fire Protection Association recommends having between 14 and 15 firefighters on the scene of a fire within eight minutes.
Each station has a minimum staff of three firefighters at a time, Glover said.
There are times when there are more firefighters on duty if volunteers and bunkers are at the stations, but it is rare for the department to have a total of 15 firefighters on duty at one time, he said.
“And obviously the city can’t afford to increase their career staff,” he said.
While the department hopes to add bunker and career firefighters, more volunteer interior firefighters are desperately needed, said Glover.
“Volunteer numbers are critically short,” he said.
The department is lucky to have 25 active volunteer firefighters and only about 15 are certified as interior firefighters, Glover said.
When Glover started volunteering with the department in the 1970s there were five volunteer companies, each with about 35 members.
In 1986, when Glover was hired as a career firefighter, there were 44 career firefighters, while today there are only 34.
Glover hopes to hear back from FEMA about the amount of funding still left in the grant within the next couple of weeks.
If there is not enough grant money or if FEMA does not agree to extend the grant, Glover said he would approach the Common Council about funding the program and search for ways to reduce its costs.
Continuing the program for 16 bunkers without any cuts would cost about $50,000 to $100,000 a year, Glover said.
To reduce the expense, Glover said the department would look at cutting the number of bunkers. There are other options to cut spending as well, Glover said, but he would say what they are.
Already the department has reduced the number of bunkers to 12, Glover said, adding 12 is the ideal number of bunkers as the smaller group is easier to manage.
Three of the 12 bunkers serving with the department are assigned to each of the department’s four shifts, he said.
The department had requested the grant issued in 2011 pay for 16 as the department had never done a bunker program before and at the time thought 16 would be better, Glover said. The reduction in bunkers is what allowed the department to save the grant funds it now hopes to use through 2016, he said.
Richard Gunn, 20, of Preble is the newest member of the bunker program, having just joined in July.
“It was a good step for me to take to pursue this as a career,” said Gunn, who has been volunteering with the Preble Fire Department for six years. Gunn serves as president and captain of that department.
“Every time I’ve been here it’s been a new experience,” said Gunn, who works two jobs at Little York Plantations in Little York and at Cannon Pools and Spas in Cortlandville. “I’m learning a lot more than I knew before.”
There are too many variables in the city budget, including health care and pension costs, to be able to determine if there would be any money available for the bunker program in 2016, said Mack Cook, the city administrator.
“It would be too early to tell for 2016,” Cook said. “It would be assessed like any other program.”
The department has contacted SUNY Cortland asking for assistance with the program, Glover said, noting that the housing reimbursement can assist college students qualified to volunteer.
Of the 12 bunkers the department has, a couple of them are SUNY Cortland students, Glover said.
After speaking with a member of the college, it might be possible for one or two bunkers to join a leadership program at SUNY Cortland, said Donn Hewes, a career firefighter with the department and the bunker program coordinator.
But the program would not be able to take the eight to 12 bunkers the department was looking to have, Hewes said.
“It’s the right kind of thinking, but its not the kind of thing that will find the solution to our problem,” he said. “They didn’t really have a way to offer financing or funding in a general sense.”
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