The Cortez Fire Protection District will add full-time firefighters to the firehouse on Ash Street for the first time in its history, thanks to a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The district’s board of directors voted to accept the $555,258 grant on Wednesday, July 18, a move that brings the station one step closer to employing full-time firefighters.
“Our department has been trying to go full time and this funding will allow us to start that program,” said Cortez Fire Chief Jeff Vandevoorde. “We are really excited that this funding will allow us to move in that direction.”
The announcement of the grant’s approval and acceptance comes just two months after a ballot issue for a 3.5 mill property tax increase for the district was turned down by voters, with 1,0471 voting against the tax and 1,075 voting in favor.
The revenue from the tax increase, an anticipated $500,000, would have gone to firefighter protective gear, new truck and additional staffing of paid firefighters. Now, thanks to the federal funding, the department will be able to move forward with staffing increases without community financing.
“We don’t have any full-time guys right now,” Vandevoorde said. “All of our firefighters we have on duty are part-time and volunteer.”
The fire protection district intends to offer the six positions to current firefighters within the department, in an effort to provide career advancement to those who have already dedicated themselves to service in the community. Currently, 25 part-time and volunteer firefighters are part of the local department.
“The benefit to these firefighters is this is a career position for them,” Vandevoorde said. “With career positions, hopefully they will stay for 20 years. The grant will allow for full benefits and a pension.”
The first full-time employees will start at a salary of $30,000 annually.
To apply for the position, interested firefighters will have to “test” for the job. The application process includes a 100-question written test, a seven-minute physical ability test involving ladder climbs and weighted dummy pulls, and an oral interview before a five-person board.
“It is intensive, but worth it,” Vandevoorde said.
The benefit of the grant extends beyond career opportunities for individual responders, however, and also benefits the community though better response time in emergency situations, the ability of the fire department to attend to multiple calls at once, and more specialized attention.
“(The grant) is going to change what the community sees and what we are able to do,” said district board chairman Jim Bridgewater. “We are going to be able to put two full-time firemen and two reservists on every 24-hour shift, instead of the three reservists we have now. That will allow us to double cover everything.”
Four firefighters on duty as opposed to three will allow pairs of two to respond to separate calls and enable he fire engine to be reserved for fires, while a smaller rescue truck can be used for calls such as car accidents and other non-fire related emergencies.
Bridgewater said the number of calls coming into the protection district has been increasing in the past few years and the additional staff will allow the department to operate more efficiently.
“(Wednesday, July 11) the board had our regular meeting and in the two hours we were meeting the guys have five calls,” he said. “With only three guys it was a fast and furious as they could go. This will alleviate some of that.”
The national grant, which the district applied for after the mill levy was voted down, was awarded to less than 10 percent of applicants. In Colorado, FEMA awarded $3.8 million dollars to fire protection districts and rescue authorities. In addition to Cortez, South Metro Fire Rescue Authority in Centennial received $1,549,646, Durango Fire and Rescue Authority received $1,275,552, Fairmount Fire Protection District in Golden received $264,984 and Larkspur Fire Protection District received $180,966.
“We are very fortunate to be able to get this funding and the important thing to know is it is going to better the department and it is going to provide jobs for people in the community to help them stay in the community,” Vandevoorde said. “It has been our goal to go full time in 2014. We were fortunate to get this grant ahead of time and take this step in the direction we have been going towards.”