Jersey Village City Council voted unanimously May 11 to allow Fire Chief Mark Bitz to apply for a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide funding for the city to help bring on the firefighters.
In a presentation to council, Bitz said volunteer response has been down for a number of reasons, including younger volunteers getting jobs with other fire departments and aging volunteers who are no longer able to fight fires or hold heavy equipment.
The department has 37 volunteers on whom it calls when they are available, which Bitz said averages out to one volunteer who can respond during day shifts and four to five who can respond during night shifts. As a result, when fire trucks and heavy rescue trucks respond to a call, they are not fully manned the majority of the time, Bitz said.
"I would love to see four people on each one of these trucks every time each one of these trucks responds to a call, day or night," he said. "We don’t have the number of staff that would be ideal for full manning of these trucks. During the daytime, I can get two trucks with three people on them."
Seven people is the minimum number that should respond to a motor vehicle accident, Bitz said. For structure fires, he said ideally, 12 people would respond on two fire trucks and one rescue trucks, and a response of nine people is the bare minimum.
Of the roughly $1.3 million it would cost to cover salaries, benefits and overtime for the four firefighters over the next three years, the FEMA grant would cover about $831,000, while the city would provide $517,000 through its normal budgeting process. After the third year, the city would cover 100% of the cost to staff the firefighters, Bitz said.
Other local departments can help with calls in Jersey Village, including the Cy-Fair Fire Department and the Northwest Fire Department.
In explaining his support for the grant application, Council Member James Singleton said the city cannot be in a position where it relies too heavily on those departments.
"We are currently today leaning on them to provide service," Singleton said. "When you look at the number of people responding to fires, it is not enough. ... We need to have more of our own firefighters of an age, training and capability responding to our own incidents in the right numbers."
Bitz said he would typically wait for budget talks to begin to make the request, but he said FEMA will stop accepting grant applications May 15, the same day the city is set to have its first workshop to discuss the fiscal year 2020-21 budget. In the FY 2019-20 budget, the city provided the department roughly $183,000 to add two full-time firefighters.
FEMA is expected to make an announcement on grant winners in June, and funding would become available in July, Bitz said. If the city is not awarded the grant, several council members said they would support funding the four new positions using city money in the FY 2020-21 budget and would take a closer look at how much firefighters are paid and at department resources.
"We need to look at our long-range plans in terms of personnel and funding and get serious about making sure that 'good enough' is not our standard," Council Member Greg Holder said. "We need to exceed 'good enough.'"