Historic City News observed members of the St. Johns County Board of Commissioners vote yesterday to accept a federal SAFER grant, which provides funding for 12 new firefighter positions for the next two years.
The grant allows the County to open Fire Station 15 on Pine Island Road with an advanced life support engine, without incurring the costs of the 12 new positions required to staff the station until the third year.
Without acceptance of the SAFER grant, Fire Station 15 would have had to remain closed until another revenue source could be identified.
SAFER grants – which stand for Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response –are distributed annually through the Department of Homeland Security to enhance local fire departments’ ability to meet national standards regarding staffing, deployment, response and operations. This is the second time St. Johns County applied for the grant to open the new fire station, previously having been denied due to a lack of funding availability.
The SAFER grant award of $1.4 million pays the full salaries and benefits of the 12 new positions for two years, with the stipulation that the County retain the positions and fund them for a third year. Additionally, the County must maintain staffing of the Fire Rescue Division at the level that existed at the time the grant was awarded, unless a hardship waiver is approved by the Department of Homeland Security.
Before recommending that the County accept the grant, County Administrator Michael Wanchick reminded the Board of County Commissioners that funding the 12 positions in the third year would necessitate an increase in Fire Rescue revenues prior to the third year of the grant. Currently, the fire fund is operating at a deficit due to declining property values and is anticipated to be financially insolvent by 2013.
The Commission acknowledged the need to address the financial condition of the fire fund, while voting to keep public safety a priority. The opening of Fire Station 15 will fill the primary coverage hole in north central St. Johns County, providing timely emergency fire and medical response to the residents and businesses of the Palencia, Kensington, Walden Chase, Las Calinas and Pine Island areas, as well as Nease High School and the heavily traveled US-1 North corridor.
The new station will also improve responses within already established service areas by limiting responses out of these primary zones, as well as providing additional support within these primary zones when needed. Specifically identified areas that will see relief include communities around the airport, World Golf Village, County Road 210, Nocatee and Palm Valley.
County officials anticipate opening Fire Station 15 in late summer, giving enough time to hire and train the new firefighters. A grand opening community celebration will be announced in the future.