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Governor Bestows Firefighter Grant to Arlington

Combination of federal, state and county funding will pay for eight new firefighters and emergency response personnel.

Gov. Timothy Kaine came to Arlington last week to present the county with matching state funding for a federal grant that has enabled the hiring of eight new firefighters.

In a ceremony featuring more than a dozen Arlington firefighters, Kaine delivered to County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman and Fire Chief Jim Schwartz a $32,000 check that will supplement the four-year, $800,000 Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) grant the Department of Homeland Security awarded the county in February.

THIS FUNDING will be used to add a fourth full-time firefighter to two of the county’s fire engines. Currently, the maximum four people staff 10 of Arlington’s 14 fire vehicles.

"Arlington is committed to providing the best possible fire and EMS service for our community, and we recognize that adequate staffing is a key component of providing effective, high-quality service," Zimmerman said.

Yet the county faces major challenges retaining and recruiting high-caliber firefighters because they are paid less than their counterparts in neighboring jurisdictions.

Following a December raise, the annual starting salary for firefighters in Arlington is now $37,275. This compares to approximately $43,000 in Fairfax County, $42,000 in Washington, D.C., and more than $38,000 in Alexandria, Loudoun County and Prince William County, said Gary Tobias, recruitment officer for Arlington’s fire department.

The eight new firefighters and EMTs are undergoing training in the recruitment academy and are expected to become full members of the department this June.

As part of the grant, the county will provide $180,000 in fiscal year 2007 to pay for a portion of the new firefighters’ salaries.

Each year of the grant Arlington will supply an increasing portion of the funding, and by the fifth year the county will have to pay the entire salaries of all eight firefighters. State money will only be available for the first year of the program.

Virginia is the only state to provide local assistance as part of the SAFER staffing grants, and Arlington is the first community in the commonwealth to receive such funding.

"WE DEMAND a lot from our firefighters and first responders, and it’s important they get the tools they need," Gov. Kaine said.

Capt. Mike Staples, president of the Arlington Professional Firefighter’s Association, said that having an extra firefighter on the engines would help save the lives of both emergency responders and Arlington residents.

"Inadequate staffing contributes to the death of firefighters more than anything else," Staples said after the ceremony, which was held in front of the county government office in Courthouse.

Since firefighters work in pairs, having a fourth member will enable a team of firefighters to undertake larger, and riskier, operations during a fire or emergency, Staples said.

"This makes a huge difference," he added. "You can do so much more with four people."

The additional personnel are imperative given the growing demands the county places on its fire department, Zimmerman said.

Last year the department responded to 25,000 calls for service. Yet firefighters also play integral roles in protecting the county from terrorist attacks and reacting in the wake of natural disasters.

"As this community found out first-hand on 9/11, firefighters and paramedics are not just our first responders, they are our first defenders," Zimmerman said.

While fire officials are pleased by the federal grant, they admit that the department is struggling to hire enough personnel. Last year the department’s recruitment class was made up of only 24 individuals, eight below the goal, Staples said.

"THIS IS another disappointing turnout," Staples said. "There’s no question that it has to do with the fact that the starting pay is significantly behind the places all around us."

The low salary has caused a number of young firefighters to leave the department over the past year, Staples said.

Officials fear that younger firefighters will leave the Arlington department for those in Loudoun and Prince William Counties, where the salaries are higher.

Less than 10 percent of Arlington firefighters live in the county, with many residing in Loudoun and Prince William, where the cost of living is much lower.

The county government "can’t say we will pay you 25 percent less to drive out of the community where you live to come and work here," Staples said.