RENO, NV – 3:18 p.m. update: For two years, the city of Reno has relied on the federal government’s SAFER grant program to maintain its staffing levels. The grant program was created to help local fire departments increase the number of trained “front line” firefighters on the ground.
In 2011, the city was awarded $1.9 million. In 2012, that award was increased to $14 million, enough funding to keep 64 firefighters employed.
City Manager Andrew Clinger said today the city knew the risks of relying so heavily on grant money that could evaporate and worked to reduce that reliance through attrition.
Since 2012, the city has not hired replacements for 15 firefighters who have retired, he said.
As a result, the city had applied for $12 million this year to fund 50 positions.
The SAFER grant is one of the most competitive grants administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Last year, the agency received requests for $1.67 billion in funding from 1,500 agencies.
According to the agency’s denial letter, Reno’s application did not score high enough to earn an award.
“We can tell you that the peer review panel scores indicate that your application was generally good and above average however, after awarding departments with scores higher than the scores assigned to your department’s application, we regrettably do not have enough funding to offer you an award at this time,” FEMA’s grant director Michael Gillenwater wrote to the city.
2:45 p.m. update: After more than two hours of heated public debate, the Washoe County Commission today decided not to open formal negotiations with the city of Reno over creating a new regional fire service.
The decision came hours after the city announced it must lay off 35 firefighters because it failed to win a federal grant needed to pay for the staffing.
Commissioners today opted to wait until a report is issued by its Blue Ribbon Committee on Regional Fire, which is wrapping up its study on how to provide regional fire service, before it makes any formal decision on whether to negotiate with Reno.
Despite the lack of formal action, some commissioners may continue to meet informally with Reno officials to discuss ways to better provide joint fire service.
The commission held a public hearing on the issue after a series of private meetings between commissioners Martha Berkbigler and Dave Humke and Reno Mayor Bob Cashell and Councilwoman Neoma Jardon.
Humke declared he would no longer attend private meetings, demanding that any negotiations be done in an open meeting.
But Berkbigler said such informal meetings are necessary to build trust and make progress.
“We meet with other elected officials all the time,” Berkbigler said. “I just think we need to get out of our own way. I don’t want to create a problem that looks like we’re doing something in the dark. On the other side of the coin, if we declare we are going to meet publicly on every single issue we meet on, we’ll spend a lot of time sitting here pontificating on things that are really unnecessary. We have a job to do.”
2:15 p.m. update: When the city of Reno lays off 35 firefighters on July 1, it will be forced to “brown out” three fire stations—Station 19 in Somersett, Station 7 on Skyline Boulevard and Station 10 on North Virginia Street near Parr Boulevard.
That means the three stations will be staffed only when hazardous fire conditions exist, such as high winds or lightning strikes.
The Somersett and Skyline stations are already subject to brown outs when staffing is low. Station 10 will now be added to the rotation.
Reno Fire Chief Michael Hernandez said the response times in District 10 will likely increase by two to four minutes after the layoffs.
But he said he is confident the fire department will be able to meet the goal of 8-minute response times to all areas of the city except certain neighborhoods in Golden Valley.
Station 10 responds to an average of 100 calls a month—about 3 percent of the city’s total fire calls.
Tuesday morning update: The city of Reno is preparing to lay off up to 35 firefighters and will begin closing a third fire station after news the fire department will no longer receive a significant federal grant.
The Federal Emergency Management Administration officially notified city officials Monday that the grant request had been rejected.
Since last year, the city had relied on the $14 million SAFER grant to fund 64 positions. The money had prevented mass layoffs after the deconsolidation of the Reno and Washoe County fire departments.
“While this news is disappointing, the Reno Fire Department will continue to provide a high level of service to the citizens of Reno and support the priorities of the city council to provide safe and livable neighborhoods and provide efficient and responsive city services,” City Manager Andrew Clinger said in a statement. “We knew this was a possibility, and we’ve been working on a restructuring plan for some time to ensure the continued safety of our citizens.”
Lay off notices will be sent to 35 firefighters on May 1. Terminations will take effect on July 1, according to an email Chief Michael Hernandez sent to city employees today. Typically the last hired are the first to be let go in a mass layoff situation.
Reached by phone this morning, Dennis Jacobsen, president of the Reno Fire Fighters Local 731, said the union will begin meeting with city management today to discuss options for reducing the number of layoffs.
“We will do everything we can to protect our younger firefighters,” Jacobsen said, noting the union doesn’t make the financial decisions for the city.
“They’re the ones who put the city in this financial crunch and they will have to answer to the public for it,” he said of the city’s management and elected officials.
The rejection of the grant means the fire department is scrambling to reassign resources to ensure the city is adequately covered. Three stations will be subject to rotating closures: Station 10 on North Virginia Street, Station 19 in Somersett and the Skyline Station 7.
Reno Mayor Bob Cashell, who learned this morning the grant was rejected while on vacation in Palm Springs, said he’s confident the city will still be able to provide adequate firefighting coverage.
“We will still take care of Reno,” he said. “We’ve got stations close enough to do the proper response times.”
The news comes just days after Cashell and other city officials reached out to two county commissioners in an attempt to begin discussing a new regional fire service.
The Washoe County Commission is set to discuss the city’s proposal at its regular board meeting today.
In July 2011, the commission decided to dissolve its decade-old contract with the city to provide fire services and stand up its own fire department. It passed a new property tax assessment to fund the new department.