Southern Pines will pursue a federal grant that would pay for six additional firefighters over the next three years to bring the town’s fire department up to full staff.
Speaking during a Town Council meeting Wednesday night, Fire Chief Mike Cameron said the additional staffing fulfills a need first outlined in a 2018 long range plan, and rapid growth in calls has made that need more urgent.
Although he is still finishing his department report on 2021, Cameron said the department saw a 28 percent increase in calls this past year. At times, the department needed to call back off-duty firemen or seek help from volunteer firefighters.
“We’re busy enough to where we’re running out of staff,” Cameron said.
The total dollar value of the grant is still being worked up but is likely to exceed $200,000, since it will cover full compensation costs such as salary and retirement benefits.
The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grants are being offered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Unlike most grants, this particular round is offering to cover 100 percent of the costs for three years. Normally, only the first year is fully funded, and then a smaller portion in succeeding years.
Town Manager Reagan Parsons said there was no guarantee that Southern Pines would secure the grant and that, if unsuccessful, Cameron would likely be coming back to the council for more money to fill the positions.
Normally, additional staff are added a few at a time to lessen the financial impact on the town budget. Assuming Southern Pines wins the federal grant, it will get a three-year reprieve on any costs, unless there are increases to retirement, insurance or salary benefits. Parsons said his expectation is that growth in the tax base over the next three years would generate sufficient money to cover the newer costs.
The town has won this type of grant twice before, most recently in 2018. If lucky a third time, Southern Pines then faces the challenge of actually finding enough qualified applicants. Most municipalities are competing hotly for specialized employees like police and firefighters, and that prospect weighed on council members.
“Is it realistic to say we’ll get six?” asked Council member Bill Pate.
Cameron said right now the town is dependent on local fire training academies to find job candidates. Whereas a single opening drew dozens of applications a few years ago, it now is a challenge finding even one good hire.
“Hiring for anything is very difficult right now,” Parsons said.
The Town Council will hold its monthly business meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 11 at the Douglass Community Center, 1185 W. Pennsylvania Ave.