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$8.1M federal grant ready for Meridian Fire Department - but does the city want it?

Three firefighters kneel in a circle during training next to a Meridian Fire Department ladder truck.
Meridian Fire Department
Meridian Firefighters participating in a 2022 training exercise.

10/4/2023 UPDATE: The City of Meridian reports it asked for and received a 30-day extension on the September 30 acceptance deadline, as allowed by the SAFER grant program. Meridian spokesperson Stephany Galbreaith wrote by email that officials are still evaluating "how the long-term financial implications to local tax-payers may be managed given this operational opportunity."

ORIGINAL STORY: The Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, awarded a $8.1M SAFER Grant to the Meridian Fire Department Sept. 1. But the city has yet to accept the money, with a Sept. 30 deadline fast approaching.

“It's just strictly for staffing,” explained Meridian Professional Fire Local 4627 President Derek Nelson. “It helps departments, you know, kind of get a quick catch up.”

There are "rules of thumb" in the firefighting world, Nelson said, regarding the number of personnel a department should have based on the population of the area it serves. That number is roughly one for every 1,000 residents.

In one of the fastest-growing areas in the state, Nelson said Meridian Fire hasn’t kept up.

“We have been fighting this fight for staffing for a long time. And so this opportunity, you know, being awarded this is that kind of catch up mechanism to at least get us to that four person staffing on engines,” Nelson said.

The department would use the grant money to hire 24 new firefighters over three years, and bump engine personnel from three to four. Ladder trucks already operate with four firefighters.

SAFER Grants are competitively distributed; 300 organizations were awarded $360M in 2023. Meridian Fire’s $8.1M was among the largest ten percent of grants this year, and is the largest ever given to an Idaho fire agency.

Caldwell and Nampa have each received past SAFER Grants, and Kootenai County received a second award this year after their first in 2019. They are among 12 total recipients across Idaho since the program began, according to the SAFER Grant website.

City of Meridian Spokeswoman Stephany Galbreaith wrote by email the city is aware of the grant and still evaluating the financial details. She did not share any cost estimates to the city once the grant funding is exhausted.

“The reasoning behind the SAFER grant is for us to achieve, in the most basic sense, getting the right number of people to the scene at the right time,” said Nelson.

Meridian Fire can’t do that in all situations right now. The nightmare scenario is a fire at a multi-family housing complex or large commercial building. Firefighters abide by the buddy system, so an engine team of three arriving at a fire can’t enter the building to search for people trapped inside until other units arrive.

In these large-scale scenarios, Nelson said fire departments from neighboring areas would respond as well.

He’s hoping the city responds to the grant, too.

“A friend of mine used the analogy of, ‘you let your kid apply for Harvard and you're not going to pay for it? Really?’ It's like a golden opportunity is right in front of you.”

Troy Oppie is a reporter and local host of 'All Things Considered' for Boise State Public Radio News.

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