WASHINGTON — Buffalo taxpayers will, in essence, get a $9.8 million break thanks to a federal grant that will help the city hire 50 firefighters to replace those who retire or leave the Fire Department in the next few years.
Mayor Byron W. Brown on Wednesday termed the grant money, which will be spread over three years, "very significant for the city of Buffalo."
"This will create some additional savings for us, which is extremely important," Brown said.
City officials applied for the grant from the Department of Homeland Security’s Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) Program, which aims to help municipalities to maintain fire safety through adequate staffing. Lackawanna and the city of Tonawanda previously received smaller grants under the program.
Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, announced the latest grant.
“Buffalo is home to an incredible team of firefighters who work tirelessly and around the clock to respond to emergencies across the city," Higgins said in a statement announcing the grant. "This federal funding will go a long way toward supporting and strengthening the team of professionals eager to answer that call.”
Buffalo Fire Commissioner William Renaldo said the grant will allow his department to move closer to its target of 720 firefighters, up from just under 700 today. That number ebbs and flows with retirements and other departures, he said.
Some of the first-year money will be used to fund an incoming class of new firefighters in February and another next summer.
"This will enable us to attain and maintain our goal of being a fully staffed department," he said.
The new hires also will allow the department to cut down on overtime, Renaldo added.
Vincent Ventresca, president of the Buffalo Fire Fighters Local 282, said the union has some more specific suggestions for how the city might want to spend the federal money.
For one thing he said, the city should stop the random closing of fire stations on a shift-by-shift basis.
"That's just dangerous and puts the citizens and firefighters at a heightened risk," Ventresca said.
In addition, the union believes city officials should study whether it is meeting National Fire Protection Association's standards for response times throughout the city. If not, Ventresca said Buffalo officials should consider reopening closed firehouses in neighborhoods where response times are too long.
Lastly, he said the city should consider getting a water rescue craft for use during the times of the year when there's a great deal of activity on the city's waterways.
The grant is the second major federal award to the Buffalo Fire Department this month. Higgins previously announced a $322,000 grant for firefighter training and equipment.
New York's two U.S. senators said they fought hard for Buffalo's application for the $9.8 million federal grant.
“Hiring 50 new firefighters is a massive shot in the arm for Buffalo and a huge boost to the world-class Buffalo Fire Department,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a Democrat, said in a statement. “This means our already outstanding emergency personnel will have the support they need to deal with all emergencies that arise and keep the community safe from harm.”
Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, also a Democrat, agreed.
“Every day our first responders risk their lives to protect us, and we need to do everything we can to support them as they respond to emergencies," she said in a statement.