Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland and Interim Tacoma Fire Chief Jim Duggan announced that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has awarded a $7.7 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant to the Tacoma Fire Department. The grant will be used to avert the proposed layoff of 37 firefighters.
The city submitted its grant application on February 24. On March 16, Cantwell wrote a letter to FEMA in support of the department's request for this grant.
"This is great news for the men and women of the Tacoma Fire Department who work every day to help keep this community safe," Cantwell said. "But today's news is also about the thousands of jobs that depend on first responders. This grant will help improve the city's economic competitiveness by making it a more attractive place to work and live. I'm proud to have worked with the city of Tacoma to help support its competitive bid for the grant."
"We are very pleased to receive this much needed funding to preserve public safety in our community," said Mayor Strickland.
"Senator Cantwell and Pierce County leaders are focused on investments that show we are "open for business,'" said Tom Pierson, Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber President & CEO. "This grant keeps business overhead low, creating an attractive market to bring new businesses and more jobs to our community."
The $7.7 million grant will pay the 37 firefighters' wages and benefits for two years. According to the Tacoma Fire Department, losing 37 firefighters would have caused the loss of three of the department's 16 engine companies. The loss of these engine companies would mean only 50 percent of the fire department's service area would be accessible in four minutes of travel time by a single fire engine. The department's standard is for 90 percent of its service area to be accessible after four minutes of travel time.
"This is an important victory for the citizens of Tacoma and public safety," said Ryan Mudie, President of IAFF Local 31. "A quick response is critical in any emergency, and too few firefighters on the job means it will take longer to respond and mitigate fires and other emergencies."
The Tacoma Fire Department's service area includes infrastructure crucial for business in the state, oil refineries, fuel tanks and pipelines, I-5, and rail lines. The department must also respond to and mitigate fires at the Port of Tacoma, which supports 43,000 jobs in Pierce County and 113,000 jobs in Washington state. A fire in the port or in critical infrastructure could impact jobs, trade and commerce, and damage companies' products in storage or transit.
"Our job is economic development and we need this kind of protection from The Tacoma Fire Department at the Port of Tacoma so that we can protect our current tenants and continue to attract new business," said Connie Bacon, Port of Tacoma Commissioner.
A reduction in fire service could have also impacted insurance premiums for Tacoma residents and businesses. Insurance companies consider the availability of response times of fire departments when they calculate the commercial and residential premiums. The price of fire insurance in a community with good fire service can be substantially lower than in a community with poor fire service.
Since SAFER grants were first awarded in 2005, more than 90 Washington state fire departments have earned more than $38 million in competitive grants. The grants require an extensive application process, including peer review by experts in the emergency response and firefighting fields. This panel evaluates the department's need for the grant, impact of potential cuts on public safety, why the department can't hire firefighters on its own, and how the department will use the grant.
Last year, the Tacoma Fire Department responded to about 39,000 incidents, including to more than 1,400 fires. Its service area covers 71 square miles and 220,730 residents.