Growth and economic development usually produce growing pains, and those often come in the form of increased demand for municipal services — from police and fire protection to schools, roads, water and sewer infrastructure, among other things.
So it probably should have come as no surprise that the Caledonia Fire Department is seeking to keep its fire protection capabilities up to snuff to meet those challenges.
Still, when Fire Chief Richard Roeder and Battalion Chief Jeff Henningfeld went to the Caledonia Village Board this month with their proposal to hire 18 more firefighters — boosting the fire department staffing levels from 39 firefighters to 57 firefighters — it was a “big gulp” moment.
That’s a staffing increase of more than 46 percent.
Roeder and Henningfeld proposed easing into their plan for firefighter hiring by asking permission to apply for a federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant to hire six new firefighters now. The grant money would pick up 70 percent of the wages and benefits of those hires for two years and 35 percent in year three. After that, Caledonia would be on the hook for the full cost — which would amount to more than $600,000 per year.
Using that estimate to extrapolate future costs, the 18 firefighter hires proposed by the chief would boost Caledonia’s costs by $1.8 million a year — and, yes, that is indeed a big gulp. Plus, Henningfeld noted that Station 12 at 6040 Douglas Ave., which serves the east side of the village, is not large enough to accommodate many more personnel. “At some point,” Henningfeld told the board, “the village is going to have to look at relocating some fire stations.”
Keep your calculator handy. That also would come with added costs.
In one of the more curious exchanges during two meetings on the SAFER grant, a village trustee asked Chief Roeder why he didn’t bring up the staffing issues at budget time, to which he responded: “I did request more personnel and at budget time you guys said ‘It’s not feasible.’ ”
So, as directed, Roeder came back with the plan to add six firefighters with the help of the SAFER grant. The Village Board turned it down, with one board member saying it would be bad business to fire the new hires once the federal grant money ran out.
We agree with that. But if the Village Board determines that it does need to beef up fire staffing levels over the long run, then it should make the commitment to do that. It might also want to revisit the SAFER grant proposal to ease that transition.
In his pitch to the board, Roeder said the department does not ever have 15 firefighters on duty to respond to a structure fire, as recommended by National Fire Protection Association standards, but has to rely on help from neighboring departments. He said the department has not added staff in a decade. Village officials noted the Fire Department has exceeded its overtime budget by $300,000 in the past two years.
Both of those numbers argue for increased staffing levels.
While the board rejected the department’s proposal for a SAFER grant, it did agree to create an ad hoc committee to look at options for financing and staffing the department, with recommendations to come back in time for 2020 budget discussions.
That’s a reasonable path to take, but the Caledonia Village Board can’t delay these considerations much longer.
They may not be ready for the “big gulp” staffing additions proposed by the chief, but they should recognize that the village’s growth, and the added business and residential structures that have come with it, demand good fire protection and adequate firefighter staffing.