PINOLE -- A $1.24 million federal Homeland Security grant to the Pinole Fire Department could reignite a two-year, sometimes-acrimonious debate over the closing of the Pinole Valley fire station.
Station 74, one of two in the city fire department, was shuttered as a budget-slashing measure in July 2011 amid accusations by the firefighters union and some residents that the City Council was jeopardizing public safety. The closing, coupled with a staffing increase from three firefighters per shift to four at the department's other station downtown, represented a savings of $1 million a year.
At the time, several City Council members, amid much public hand-wringing, said it would be desirable to have two fire stations operating around the clock, if only the city had the money. It would cost about $1.3 million to operate Station 74 around the clock with three firefighters, officials have said.
Now comes a $1.24 million SAFER grant -- the initials stand for Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response -- to "enhance the Pinole Fire Department's ability to protect local residents from fire and fire-related hazards," according to a joint announcement last month by Reps. George Miller, D-Martinez, and Mike Thompson, D-Napa.
The funds will be used "to attain and maintain 24-hour staffing, increase the number of front-line firefighters, and hire and rehire firefighters who were laid off due to local budget cuts," according to the
Pinole used a previous SAFER grant of $438,661 spread over two years ending last month to restaff an assistant fire chief/battalion chief position that had been cut in the 2009-10 fiscal year.
Mayor Debbie Long and City Manager Belinda Espinosa said the new grant, and how to spend it, will be discussed at a Jan. 29 City Council workshop on fire service options. Espinosa said the grant would be disbursed over two years.
Meanwhile, the council will consider accepting the grant at its Jan. 15 meeting.
Nick Ronchetto, vice president of Firefighters Local 1230, which represents firefighters in the Pinole Fire Department, the Rodeo-Hercules Fire District, the Contra Costa Fire District and several other departments in the region, said the SAFER grant would enable Station 74 to reopen.
"This grant is great news for the citizens of Pinole," Ronchetto said in an email. "Not only will it allow the station to reopen, but it may help assist in the potential merger with Rodeo-Hercules fire, which the council has been looking into for some time. With the grant and the merger, the city of Pinole and its citizens will get the service they deserve and by far the best bang for buck."
Pinole and the adjacent Rodeo-Hercules Fire District share a chief in Charles Hanley. The two agencies are part of the three-agency Battalion 7 along with the Contra Costa Fire District's San Pablo and El Sobrante stations. Pinole has discussed several possible alternative arrangements to a stand-alone city fire department, including contracting with Rodeo-Hercules or Contra Costa.
Councilman Roy Swearingen said in an email Saturday that he would be "very pleased" to reopen Station 74 but cautioned: "The grant fund available would reopen Station 74 for approximately one year. What happens after that period?"
Other questions that Swearingen said need to be answered include how many firefighters would be hired or rehired to maintain the station and whether they could be laid off after one year if necessary; the effects on Pinole's ability to keep its own fire department or consolidate with Rodeo-Hercules; and whether the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the granting agency, will issue another grant to Pinole next year.
Pinole employs 14 firefighters and a battalion chief. The fire department budget for fiscal year 2012-13 is about $3.05 million. The vast majority of calls are medical -- 133 medical responses out of a total of 194 responses in November, the last month for which statistics are available on the city website.