USA — The city of Reno knew it was gambling when it decided in 2012 to pay for the salaries of 64 firefighters more than a quarter of its entire department with a federal grant that could evaporate on June 30.
But, at the time, the idea of laying off 64 people weighed heavier than the risk of relying on uncertain money to fund permanent positions.
On Tuesday, the city’s bet came due.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced it had denied Reno’s application for continued grant funding under the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response program.
News that Reno will not receive the $12 million SAFER grant it had requested means the city must fall back on its worst-case scenario contingency plan:
Effectively close three fire stations, keeping them equipped only for use in times of emergency such as high wildfire danger conditions or reduced staffing in other areas.
Lay off 35 firefighters those with the least seniority among the 127 firefighters on staff.
Increase response times to residents in north Reno those served by Station 10 on North Virginia Street by two to four minutes.
The changes will take effect on July 1.
Because of measures the city took to incrementally reduce its dependency on the grant, the fire department will have to lay off fewer people than it would have had to in 2012. But that doesn’t mean the loss won’t hurt the department or affect fire service in the city.
“I’m not saying it’s a minimal impact,” Hernandez said at a news conference Tuesday. “Thirty-five positions is significant. Our plan calls for the browning out and closing of another station. That in and of itself is a signification position. This is our reality right now.”
Reno has struggled to fund its fire department through both an economic recession that depleted city coffers as well as the wrenching deconsolidation of the Reno and Washoe County fire departments in 2011.
When the federal government came to the rescue in 2012 with a $14 million grant, the city jumped at the chance to avoid mass layoffs and the temporary closure of a third of its fire stations.
“The wisdom of it?” City Manager Andrew Clinger said. “The city would have had to lay off 64 firefighters two years ago.”
To begin saving money, the city stopped filling positions when firefighters retired and slashed overtime. But it wasn’t nearly enough to eliminate the need for the grant.
Dennis Jacobsen, president of Reno Fire Fighters Local 731, said union leadership will begin working with city management to look for ways to avoid layoffs. But he wasn’t incredibly optimistic.
“They’re the ones who put the city in this financial crunch and they will have to answer to the public for it,” Jacobsen said.
“We will do everything we can to protect our younger firefighters.”
The city had already been temporarily closing two stations Somersett and Skyline. Starting July 1, those closures will increase and a third station Station 12 on North Virginia Street will be added to the brown out list.
Hernandez said he is confident the fire department will be able to respond to nearly all calls for service within eight minutes.
The brownouts could also bring back the debate over how many firefighters should staff each of Reno’s stations. The city’s firefighter union has in the past stood firm on its position that every fire truck roll with four firefighters, which was one of the reasons for Washoe County going off on its own.
Meanwhile, the Washoe County Commission decided after two hours of contentious public comment to table a request by Reno to begin formal negotiations on creating a new regional fire service.
Commissioners Martha Berkbigler and Dave Humke had been meeting privately with Mayor Bob Cashell and Councilwoman Neoma Jardon to discuss the possibility of erecting a new regional fire service.
But the commission as a whole felt it better to wait for an imminent report from the county’s Blue Ribbon Committee tasked with studying the issue and providing an independent evaluation of the possibility.
Reno has chosen not to participate in that process.
News that Reno is laying off 35 firefighters prompted some residents of unincorporated Washoe County to complain the city is seeking a financial rescue from the county.
“They haven’t planned and they haven’t strategized and they’re looking for you to bail them out,” resident Cindy Davis, who sits on the Blue Ribbon Committee, said at the county commission meeting Tuesday.
Washoe County Commissioner Kitty Jung, who opposed the 2011 decision to deconsolidate, chastised anyone who viewed Reno’s loss of the grant as an I-told-you-so moment.
“If you’re gloating about that, I think you’re not a very nice person,” she said. “It is incumbent on us to be compassionate about this. These are human beings.”
Humke declared he would no longer participate in any private meetings with the city, stating his desire to conduct any negotiations in a public forum.
Berkbigler, however, said she would likely continue informal discussions, hoping to hammer out better ways to cooperate on fire service.
“I just think we need to get out of our own way,” she said. “I don’t want to create a problem that looks like we’re doing something in the dark. On the other side of the coin, if we declare we are going to meet publicly on every single issue we meet on, we’ll spend a lot of time sitting here pontificating on things that are really unnecessary. We have a job to do.”
What is a brownout?
Three stations will be subject to brown outs starting July 1: Station 19 in Somersett, Station 7 on Skyline, and Station 10 on North Virginia Street.
That means the three stations will be continue to be equipped with fire trucks, but will be staffed only when hazardous fire conditions exist, such as high winds or lightning strikes.
Stations 19 and 7 had already been subject to brownouts. Station 10 responds to an average of 100 calls a month about 3 percent of the city’s total fire calls.
What is the SAFER grant?
The grant is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Administration to assist local fire departments in maintaining and increasing the number of trained “front line” firefighters in the community.
Reno was awarded $1.9 million in 2011 and $13.4 million in 2012. It applied for $12 million this year.