Federal grant means more firefighters

Clark County Fire & Rescue, East County Fire & Rescue each get close to $1 million

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Two local fire departments are expected to see dramatic boosts in their firefighter ranks in the next few years, thanks to a federal grant that awarded them each around $1 million, officials said.

Clark County Fire & Rescue, which covers Ridgefield, Battle Ground and La Center, received a $979,519 award to recruit and retain volunteers and hire a volunteer coordinator.

Meanwhile, East County Fire & Rescue, which serves unincorporated Clark County near Camas and Washougal, received $724,659 to hire five full-time firefighters and $299,500 to beef up their volunteer ranks.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded the grants earlier this month to departments that traditionally struggle with high turnover rates or low staffing. Fire departments do not have to provide matching dollars for the grant. The departments will be reimbursed for all authorized expenses. If they do not spend portions of the grant, they will lose out on the leftover money.

Fire officials with the two districts lauded the grant for its ability to make problem areas, such as volunteer retention, into areas of strength. In making departments larger, the grant will allow departments to respond quicker and more efficiently to emergencies, officials said.

“One of the problems we have — really for services across the nation — is trying to retain volunteers,” Clark County Fire Chief Dennis Mason said. “The days of having individuals between 30 and 45 with a couple of kids who simply wanted to volunteer time as a community service … are over.”

Most volunteers simply want to obtain experience before moving up to a full-time position, officials said.

East County Fire & Rescue’s full-time firefighter staff is expected to more than double from four to nine, and its volunteer ranks are expected to jump from 30 to 50 — a 40 percent increase.

East County Fire & Rescue’s volunteers generally staff stations at night. Usually, there is one full-time firefighter, one college intern and a part-time firefighter at stations during the day.

The grant will provide money for East County to train its volunteers, reimburse them better for missed work time and provide service awards as a show of appreciation, Chief Scott Koehler said. The grant will also pay for 20 sets of protective gear for volunteers, valued at $2,000 apiece.

The money for volunteers will be spent across four years.

“It’s absolutely huge,” Koehler said, adding the grant will mean the department will have at least six people respond to each scene, increasing efficiency and making for a safer working environment.

The fire district will receive money to pay five full-time firefighters for the first two years. Then, it will be responsible to pay their salaries the third year, Koehler said.

Clark County Fire & Rescue will use a significant portion of its grant on hiring a volunteer coordinator. The coordinator will make around $60,000 annually and be in charge of recruitment and retention programs that require “thinking outside the box,” Mason said. The department expects to have the position filled by Aug. 3.

The department hopes to increase its volunteer ranks from 35 to 60 during the course of the four-year grant. The department has 38 full-time firefighters.

“We’ve been struggling with our volunteer programs for a number of years,” Mason said, noting those struggles led the department to write its grant request.

Among the programs designed to entice volunteers are child care provided during drills, health care offerings after volunteers have served an unspecified amount of time, and money for training. The grant also provides Clark County Fire & Rescue money to give recruits physical exams and immunizations.

Ray Legendre: 360-435-7517, ray.legendre@columbian.com, www.twitter.com/col_smallcities.