San Jose to hire 27 new firefighters with grant money

July 13, 2012 7:05:48 PM PDT
San Jose's firefighters have been on a roller coaster ride and now a second round of federal funding brings some welcome relief. City residents will soon have more firefighters on the streets thanks to a multi-million dollar grant.

This is the second consecutive year that San Jose has received federal funding to add firefighters, in part because the department is too short-staffed to serve a population of nearly one million people.

Sometimes a news announcement has more emotion than what appears on the surface. Just ask some of San Jose's firefighters who were caught in painful and historic layoffs two years ago.

"That was a hard day. This is a good day," said firefighter Nick Long. "I mean, I'm smiling for a reason."

San Jose is receiving $8.6 million in federal funding, enough to hire 27 new firefighters. That will increase the force to 672 uniformed personnel by early next year. That's still below staffing levels 10 years ago, but enough to allow two engines on brownout status to spend more time in service.

"It will increase our capacity, it will improve our response time, it will allow for us to provide a much higher level of service," said San Jose Fire Dept. Chief William McDonald.

Congressional leaders say the funding is a popular bipartisan program to help keep communities safe during this economy.

"The whole idea is to make sure that we support firefighters across the nation," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose.

The SAFER grant money is only for two years, so even on a day of good news, the federal funding comes with politics -- how to solve the cities long-term budget issues.

"We solve those problems by saving money through pension reform, which the voters approved in June, that generate the savings so we can rebuild the fire department," Mayor Chuck Reed said.

Firefighters have already taken a 10 percent pay cut and employee unions are fighting voter-approved pension reform in court. Where everyone agrees is that San Jose needs more firefighters.

"We're all trying to move forward, fall forward," Long said. "If we have to stumble forward, if we have to, we want to get this department back on track, reunify it and deliver the level of service the city deserves."

While it is short-term, the federal money is helping, which is why San Jose intends on applying for yet one more grant this year.

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