Some 47 firefighters and EMS personnel have smiles on their faces today after they learned over the weekend that the Lehigh Acres Fire and Rescue District has been told by the federal government's FEMA program that the fire district will receive a SAFER grant to the tune of $6,716,874.
Chief Don Adams sent the information out Friday, the day the department was notified that the SAFER grant had been awarded to the Lehigh Fire Dept.
Adams said the award will allow the fire district to retain 46 firefighter positions which were originally covered under the 2009 SAFER Grant. The number was raised to 47.
"The district will be able to maintain its current operational status, including all five fire stations remaining open and operational, in addition to keeping current staffing levels, according to Adams.
Earlier this year, the chief said that in August, there would have been a layoff of at least 34 firefighters because of the economic problems facing the district. The number of likely layoffs raised to 47 within the last few months.
Adams said layoffs would have taken place in August and at least one fire station would have been forced to shut down.
Adams said earlier last week in a conversation with The Citizen that he was optimistic about the award coming again to Lehigh. This is the second SAFER grant the district has been awarded. The first allowed several firefighters to be rehired after they had been laid off. This one will prevent a layoff in August.
The lack of ad valorem taxes has caused the shortfall in funding for the fire department. Lower ad valorem taxes are due to the bust in 2008 which put most homes in Lehigh under water, which means they were worth less. Several homes were foreclosed on, too, which also meant less tax money going to the fire district to operate.
Just recently it was reported that Lehigh properties have risen a modest .75 percent in value.
Adams noted that SAFER Grants enhance the fire district's ability to comply with the staffing, response, and operational standards of the National Fire Protection Association's Standard 1710.
This allows the fire district to efficiently respond to emergencies with a full staff on each fire apparatus, Adams said.
The district will maintain the current staffing levels on the fire apparatus at four firefighters as per these NFPA standards, the chief said.
The Assistance to Firefighters Grant process is a grant program of FEMA that is very competitive.
"Prior to our notification, there have been 32 awards given by FEMA totaling $46,630,854 as of June 22 of this year. This does not include the Lehigh Fire District's award, Adams said.
The fire department in Immokalee received a SAFER grant in May.
"The Lehigh Fire District received email notification on June 22 directly from FEMA that the district would be awarded the 2011 SAFER Grant.
The district currently has not received verbal confirmation as of this past weekend of the grant from Congressman Connie Mack's office, but it is expected to be made this week.
Adams said the fire district was given the full amount that was requested.
The formal announcement of the SAFER Grant award will be announced at the upcoming fire district's monthly meeting on June 27. The four members of the board will take action at accepting or rejecting the grant.
District Commission Chairman Jeff Berndt said earlier this year that making the extension or getting the SAFER Grant would bring stability to the district. Berndt, a firefighter himself, did not file for reelection to the commission. An election to fill three seats will be voted on during the Nov. 6 general election.
Back in 2009, the district went through with the layoff of more than three dozen and then 12 employees and then another 12 were told they may be laid off, too, because of budgetary problems. And they were told that the SAFER grant would be the only thing that could save their jobs.
"We are very excited about getting this latest SAFER Grant," Chief Adams said over the weekend. "We want to be able to do our jobs and put fires down that occur in Lehigh. We have the best firefighters right here in Lehigh," he said.