Fire Station 6 may face another closure

Vancouver leaders decide against applying for federal SAFER grant

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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Vancouver leaders have decided against applying for a federal grant this year that, if awarded, would have ensured Fire Station 6 will stay open after its current grant runs out at the end of 2013.

The move means the station, on Northeast 112th Avenue, could close from the end of 2013 to as late as August 2014 — and that's if Vancouver is successful in getting a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant next year.

Fire Station 6 was shuttered for most of 2011 due to budget cuts, but reopened after the city got a $2.3 million SAFER grant to hire 13 new firefighters.

City Manager Eric Holmes told the city council in an email Friday — the deadline to apply — that Vancouver wasn't technically qualified for the grant, and that because it has a grant now, the department wasn't as competitive.

But supporters of the station said they felt blind-sided by the last minute change — the city council had approved going after the money in May.

"I'm highly disappointed," said Mary Elkin, who lives in the Image neighborhood and founded Friends of Fire Station 6. "I'm a little upset that no one even told the city council this was going to happen. It didn't give them time to ask questions."

Holmes said that after his office consulted with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which hands out SAFER grants, he found that Vancouver doesn't technically qualify. The city coun

cil would have to authorize a letter of intent to lay off those 13 firefighters — something Holmes said should happen as part of the larger talks about the city's budget, which will occur later this year.

"It is an issue of debate that deserves to be considered in context of the overall biennial budget," Holmes said Monday. Holmes' budget is subject to council approval, but it does not contain money for Fire Station 6 as it stands now.

"In addition, the fact that the city has almost a year left on the current SAFER grant makes us less competitive compared to other departments that are actively laying off staff from their 2010 SAFER awards," Holmes wrote the city council.

In an email, Fire Chief Joe Molina said he also felt that the city wouldn't be a good fit this time around.

"My recommendation was that we provide layoff notices prior to July 2013 with a layoff effective date by the grant deadline (most likely November 2013)," Molina wrote. "SAFER award timing is unpredictable but could come early enough to minimize the layoff period to a few months, or worst case, as late as August 2014."

Molina and Holmes also both expressed hope that a redesign of the department's fire and EMS service delivery model may help keep the same level of coverage in central Vancouver, even if Fire Station 6 closes again.

Elkin said she wasn't sold.

"I think it's wrong," she said. "I think our city needs to fully fund our police and fire departments."

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542; http://twitter.com/col_cityhall;andrea.damewood@columbian.com.