CONTINUING COVERAGE: FLOODS OF 2016

Grant Will Bring 13 New Firefighters to Des Moines Fire Department

DES MOINES, Iowa - Des Moines firefighters are about to get a little backup.

The Des Moines Fire Department learned Wednesday it was awarded a federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The grant, worth $2.5 million, will fund the hiring, salaries and benefits of 13 additional firefighters for a two-year period. The City of Des Moines does not have to keep these firefighters, or pay for them, after this two-year period, but officials say the goal is to plan a way to retain them afterward.

"It's just a way that we know we can catch up, put some more bodies on the ground, help the citizens of Des Moines," said president of the Des Moines Professional Firefighters union, Joe Van Haalen.

In 2008, city budget cuts forced departments to reduce staff - that caused the DMFD to reduce its force by 31 positions, dropping it from 311 to 280. In the spring, the Des Moines City Council approved the hiring of two additional firefighters, bringing the force to 282. With these 13 additional positions funded by the grant, the force will be at its largest number since 2008, at 295 firefighters.

"The population hasn't gone down any, and we've seen our run volume continue to go up and up, so we're doing quite a bit more with less," Van Haalen said. "That's tough - there's just no way around it."

It's an issue that, in the past, has drawn criticism from the union on city officials. Firefighters have often complained about a lack of resources. But this week, all sides are agreeing that a tight collaboration made this grant possible; two previous applications for this grant were unsuccessful.

"The Des Moines Fire Department uses 23 front-line apparatus - that's either a ladder truck, an engine, or a medic squad - and the argument that we made to the Department of Homeland Security, is that our goal is to have all of those units in service each day," said Des Moines Fire Chief John TeKippe. "And where our current staffing is, we would frequently have one to two units that would not be in service for part, or all, of a day."

It's not just about civilian safety - more firefighters also allows for safer working conditions.

"This rising tide really does raise all ships, and specifically, this will enhance firefighter safety," TeKippe said.

A second federal grant was also awarded to DMFD this week: the $1.1 million Assistance to Firefighters grant will be used to replace nearly 200 breathing apparatuses firefighters use while on the job. TeKippe says the current ones are nearing the end of their lifespan.

Before the grant money can be put to use, Des Moines City Council must accept the funds in an upcoming meeting. As DMFD closes out a hiring period, it looks to add the two new positions approved by city officials in the spring, the 13 positions funded by the grant, and any vacancies currently present, to the next training class in January.