HANFORD — Almost every fire and police department has a volunteer program that is integral to its success, which is why the Hanford Fire Department is excited about using a grant to help its volunteer program.
HFD has received a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) Grant of over $95,500 to help recruit and retain volunteer firefighters.
“Volunteerism for the fire service — and I think for any agency — is going down,” Hanford Fire Chief Chris Ekk said. “Especially in the fire service, it’s hard to commit the time.”
Ekk said a lot of volunteers are either working, going to school, or doing both while still trying to put in their volunteer hours and spend time with their families; so the commitment time is tough for some.
The grant will give the fire department additional funding for its volunteer program without having to pull from the city’s general fund, Ekk said.
The SAFER grant comes from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Ekk said the overall SAFER grant is divided into two sections; one for hiring paid staff and the other for recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters.
He said the department has been applying for both sides of the grant for the last few years, but has always been denied.
This year, however, the department was granted $95,526 to help fund its volunteer program.
A few years ago, the department was struggling to keep five volunteers, Ekk said, so the program was restructured to allow more ride-along time and has seen a dramatic increase.
Right now Ekk said the department has around 12 volunteers, and he would like to see that number climb to around 20 volunteers with this extra funding.
The grant is extended over a four-year period, and Ekk said the department will use the money in several different areas in its volunteer program.
Part of the money will be used to purchase new uniforms and new turnout gear for the recruits, Ekk said. He said right now they are using old turnout gear that has been used and passed down from other firefighters.
The money will also go toward the volunteers’ stipends. Ekk said they get paid $60 a month for completing 24 hours of ride-along time.
Another part of the money will offset overtime that’s incurred for the two firefighters who act as coordinators and train the volunteers during their time off. Ekk said trying to train the volunteers can get hectic if on-duty firefighters have to leave to respond to an emergency.
The biggest aspect of the grant money will be used to reimburse firefighters who attend the fire academy. Ekk said a lot of the volunteers have interest in the fire service but have no experience, so the department wants to help them.
“That’s one of the biggest features for this part of the grant for us,” Ekk said. “We can send our own volunteers and help them get all the training they need.”
Battalion Chief Erik Brotemarkle said the grant allots money to send six volunteers to the academy over the four years. It costs about $2,000 per person to go the fire academy and receive EMT training and certification.
Brotemarkle said the fire academy is a huge commitment, and becoming a volunteer first provides “invaluable experience” beyond what the academy can offer and gives the volunteers a head start.
“It gives you that edge and that experience when you’re trying to get a job,” Ekk said. “Getting a job in the fire service is very competitive.”
Ekk said many firefighters start as volunteers somewhere; about a third of the current HFD staff are former HFD volunteers.
Ekk said he’s excited about what the grant can do and hopes this money helps encourage prospective HFD volunteers.
“I think this [grant] is going to go a long way,” Brotemarkle said. “I’m looking forward to implementing it and bringing some new volunteers on.”