The Vancouver City Council has until Sept. 1 to utilize a two-year, $2.3 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant to reopen the Burton Fire House at 3216 NE 112th Ave. The city closed the station on Jan. 1, 2011 due to budget cuts.
The City Council has scheduled a special meeting to discuss the SAFER grant on Aug. 30 in the old city hall council chambers, located at 210 East 13th St. in Vancouver. The council will meet in executive session at 6 p.m. and then reconvene with the public at 7 p.m.
The city received the SAFER grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) last March. It was enough to fund 13 new firefighter positions, and the city would have no obligation to continue funding the station at the conclusion of the grant.
However, FEMA did require that the city maintain current staffing levels within the entire fire department (165 firefighters) while the grant funds were being used. The City Council reluctantly agreed, but has been holding on to the funds ever since.
Complicating the issue is the fact that the Vancouver Firefighters Union IAFF 452 is asking for salary and cost of living increases totaling $3.2 million. Washington law prohibits the fire union from going on strike. The two sides were heading to binding arbitration earlier this summer, but decided to postpone and keep talking.
“We are doing everything we can working with our fire union to try to set the conditions so that this council can seriously consider accepting the SAFER grant,” said Mayor Tim Leavitt at the Aug. 22 City Council meeting.
Meanwhile, the deadline for spending the grant looms and friends of Fire Station #6 are getting frustrated. The Vancouver Fire Department recently reported an increase in average fire response time of 31 seconds in the Station #6 service area in the first half of 2011.
“[Neighbors] feel like they’re being held hostage to, on one side, the City Council’s position, and then the other side to the fire union’s position that we need more money and better benefits,” said Gary Schaeffer, co-chair of the Image Neighborhood Association. “They are a little bit angry. They’re paying the same taxes as everyone else but they don’t get the same benefit.”