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$2M grant to add 15 firefighters to city's ranks
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$2M grant to add 15 firefighters to city's ranks

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A $2.2 million federal grant will help add 15 firefighters to Lincoln's force, reducing overtime costs and firefighter burnout amid increasing rescue calls and city expansion, fire officials and the mayor said Thursday.

The three-year Federal Emergency Management Agency grant requires local matching funds but helps move Lincoln in the right direction after hiring lagged, Mayor Chris Beutler said at a news conference.

There have been a large number of things since the Great Recession in 2008 that the fire department has needed, and "we're finally getting to the point where we're catching up on some things," Beutler said.

Grant funding covers 75 percent of the salaries and benefits for the first two years and 35 percent in the final year. The city covers the remainder.

The city pays about $100,000 a year for salary and benefits for a mid-level firefighter, according to Tom Casady, public safety director.

The City Council voted 6-1 to give Lincoln Fire and Rescue the go-ahead to apply for the grant.

Shortly after Fire Chief Micheal Despain took helm of the department in 2016, the council turned down a $1.46 million federal grant that would have added nine firefighters to the ranks and required no local funding until it expired.

At the time, Republicans on the council were concerned the city would have needed to find funding to retain those firefighters after two years.

This time, council members factored the necessary matching funds into the two-year budget passed last week.

Despain expects these new firefighter-paramedics will eventually better staff the city so fewer employees are asked to take additional shifts to cover the city's minimum staffing requirements, he said.

Staffing levels were set when fire crews went on 15,000 calls a year, Despain said.

"Now that we're running 25,000 calls a year they have to work extra hours," he said.

Recruitment for the newest class starts next month, and they'd be hired by February 2019, he said.

He believes the city will start seeing a reduction in overtime spending in a year.

After the news conference, Councilman Bennie Shobe said he had been concerned about police and fire department staffing levels since taking office in 2017. 

This grant is a positive step toward for LFR, Shobe said.

Lincoln Firefighters Association President Ron Trouba Jr. echoed Shobe.

But, Trouba said, the city still has not added new engine or ladder truck companies to the city to help respond more quickly to calls in the growing city.

Long-term, the union chief said he's been worried about the stress overtime shifts have put on firefighters.

"They need to go home," Trouba said. "They need to be with their families."

Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

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