BRENTWOOD -- Just weeks after closing half its stations and laying off firefighters, East Contra Costa Fire District has received a $7.8 million federal grant that could enable it to restore those cuts.
Chief Hugh Henderson received an email early Friday morning notifying him that the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Homeland Security had awarded his agency the two-year grant.
This was the third time Henderson had applied for the money, which only can be used to hire personnel. The fire district only recently announced that FEMA had denied its second grant application.
The agency was forced to lay off 15 firefighters and shutter three of its six remaining stations July1 after voters rejected a 10-year parcel tax measure that would have kept it afloat.
With this windfall, Henderson said the fire district will be able to reopen the stations and not only fill the positions it eliminated but add 12 additional firefighters, returning to 2010 staffing levels when it had 54 full-time firefighters.
But while the grant could effectively double the number of firefighters from the current staffing level of 27, there are many strings attached to accepting the money, said Vince Wells, president of Contra Costa County IAFF Local 1230. Also, there is no guarantee that it will result in reopening all of the closed stations, he said.
"It's only funding personnel," Wells stressed.
That means the grant money cannot
Wells said many of the 15 firefighters who were laid off have since found jobs elsewhere.
Still, Wells said the grant is "overall a good thing, but it's not like some money fell out of the sky and it has its challenges."
Henderson predicted that it would take 60 to 90 days before the district can start reopening stations and putting more firefighters back on engines.
And although this reversal of fortune is good news both for those who lost their jobs and the district's approximately 105,000 residents, Henderson emphasized that the underlying funding problems that have hobbled the agency in recent years remain real.
"At the end of two years we're in the same boat that we are today," he said. "This is a short-term fix and we still have a long-term problem."
The fire district board of directors will hold a special meeting Wednesday to accept the grant, a step it must take before FEMA will release the funds. The meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. at 3231 Main St., Oakley.
Provisions and requirements of accepting the grant money will be discussed at the meeting, said Kevin Romick, president of the fire district's board of directors and mayor of Oakley.
He was not surprised to learn the grant came through. FEMA officials suggested that the district apply for the grant again after voters rejected the tax measure in July, he said.
"At the end of the last funding cycle, which ended in July, (FEMA) was asking us to apply," he said. "And it looked like we would qualify this time."
It is unclear what impact accepting the grant money will have on the call for volunteer firefighters that the district made after voters rejected the tax measure.
"That will be part of the discussion we will have," at Wednesday's meeting, Romick said.
On its website, the district announced that the application deadline for applying to be a volunteer firefighter was Friday, the same day that the district got the news about the grant.
"That is a total coincidence," Romick said.
Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.