The Kenwood Press
News: 10/15/2019

Sonoma Valley fire squads get big grant

Alec Peters

Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority (SVFRA) fire stations in Glen Ellen, the Springs, and city of Sonoma are the beneficiaries of a $3.3 million federal grant – money that will go to fund 12 firefighter/paramedic positions.

The money is coming from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s SAFER program, which stands for Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response.

According to FEMA’s website, SAFER grants aim to “assist in increasing the number of firefighters to help communities meet minimum industry standards” with a goal of “attaining 24-hour staffing to provide adequate protection from fire and fire related hazards.”

The SAFER program had $350 million in funds available nationwide in fiscal year 2019. The money for SVFRA will be available in March of 2020.

For the stations in Sonoma Valley, the increase in staffing means an increase from two to three fire personnel on an engine for each of the three shifts during a 24-hour period.

“Three is the industry standard, and the bare minimum you need to most effectively conduct fire operations,” said Steve Akre, SVFRA fire chief. “This is super-exciting, and I can’t wait to get people on board and trained.”

The grant is good for three years, with the Glen Ellen and Sonoma/Valley of the Moon districts adding 25 percent in matching money the first two years, jumping significantly to 65 percent the third year.

However, Akre hopes by that time there will be other funding available to continue support of the increased firefighting capabilities for future years.

One possibility is the countywide fire tax that is headed to the ballot next March.

Another is the current effort to completely reorganize and consolidate the numerous Sonoma Valley fire entities into one district. Valley fire officials say a more regional approach to fire service would improve training and deployment, and result in a stronger volunteer recruitment plan. Current fire organizations in the valley have found it increasingly difficult over the years to find the necessary number of volunteers.

Akre said he was familiar with the SAFER program because he had written three grant proposals when he worked in Contra Costa County. He gave credit to firefighter Gabe Stirnus for doing a “phenomenal job” in putting together the grant information for FEMA.

“Each and every day, our first responders put their lives on the line to keep us safe,” said U.S. Congressman Mike Thompson, who supported the grant. “It’s critical we work to support their efforts by helping them access training and resources to hire more firefighters and paramedics. Proud of Chief Akre and his entire team for receiving this important grant to help our entire community.”