PLEASANT HILL -- The Contra Costa Fire District has been awarded a federal grant of almost $9.6 million to hire firefighters, the latest in a series of such awards to East Bay fire agencies over the past two years.

"This major grant is a huge boost to the local fire department," Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, said this week in a statement announcing the award. "The ranks of first responders in California have been spread thin by numerous wildfires, the economic downturn, and now dry and dangerous drought conditions."

The county fire district applied for the grant, under the Federal Emergency Management Agency's SAFER program, hoping to hire 27 firefighters, ConFire Chief Jeff Carman said Friday.

ConFire currently has 302 full-time budgeted positions, but only 283 were filled as of late last month, according to district spokesman Lewis Broschard. The district, which covers 304 square miles, operated 28 stations and 30 crews just a few years ago. Today, it operates 23 stations, with 23 three-person crews, or 69 firefighters, on duty each day, Broschard said.

Last week, the Rodeo-Hercules Fire District won a SAFER grant of almost $2.5 million and the Alameda County Fire Department one of almost $4.2 million. Last year, SAFER grants of $1.24 million went to the Pinole Fire Department and $1.15 million to the Moraga-Orinda Fire District. The East Contra Costa Fire District received a $7.8 million SAFER grant in 2012.

Some advocates of fire reform say the grants allow fire departments to continue to do business as usual and avoid or delay making needed reforms, including curbing personnel costs.

"Until the fire districts reduce compensation to levels that 1) have public support; and 2) are affordable within current revenues (without dipping into reserves), they will continue on their path to bankruptcy," ConFire district resident Wendy Lack said in an email last week.

Lack made similar points among more than three pages of public comment to a consultant's study of the fire district, known as the Fitch report, that will be formally presented to the county board of supervisors on Tuesday.

According to this newspaper's public employee salaries database, more than 160 ConFire employees each cost the district $200,000 or more in base salary plus overtime, health coverage, employer pension contributions and other benefits in 2012, the latest year for which data are available. Top on the list was a fire captain who earned $176,744 in overtime on top of a $109,318 base salary.

Benefits, pension contributions and other employer payments brought the captain's total cost of employment to $404,182 that year.

Miller's spokesman, Peter Whippy, in an email Friday, said ConFire was awarded its grant "on the basis of, among other criteria, financial need, impact on operation and cost benefit."

"The issue of having funds available to hire adequate levels of firefighters today is entirely separate from the long-term county budgetary issues and shouldn't be conflated," Whippy added.

Carman, in an email Friday, said he sees SAFER grants as "a way to bridge the present and the future," noting that the district has set up an in-house strategic planning committee to study the business plan and look for efficiencies and other revenue sources, and ways to be innovative.

Contact Tom Lochner at 510-262-2760. Follow him at twitter.com/tomlochner