ITHACA, N.Y. — More than $1 million in federal grants over the past two years has helped fill firefighter positions at the Ithaca Fire Department and provide important equipment. Legislation recently passed will help continue those grant programs.

In September 2016, the Ithaca Fire Department received a $634,000 grant to fund the salary of four firefighters for two years. Mayor Svante Myrick said the four new firefighters finished the fire academy in May and last week finished training.

After the grant expires, it’s on the city to fund the positions, Lt. Tom Basher of the Ithaca Fire Department said.

“It’s a great start to getting the amount of firefighters we actually need,” Basher said.

Over the last two years, the Ithaca Fire Department has received more than $1 million in grant funding from the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program and the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant. In addition to adding firefighters to the team through the SAFER grant, the AFG program has helped provide the Ithaca Fire Department — and other local departments — with needed equipment. Since 2015, the Ithaca Fire Department has received more than $450,000 in grants from the AFG program.

In Ithaca on Tuesday, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand visited the Ithaca Fire Department to announce the passage of the AFG and SAFER Program Reauthorization Act, which will extend the authorization of those grant programs through Fiscal Year 2023.

“This bill will ensure the continuation of vitally important federal funds that our first responders rely on for the training, equipment, and staffing they need to do their jobs safely and effectively,” Gillibrand said in a news release. “We need to do everything we can to protect our first responders when they risk their lives to keep us safe, and I will always fight in the Senate to make sure they are given the support they deserve.”

The four recent hires from the SAFER grant brings the number of career firefighters up to 65 at the Ithaca Fire Department. Optimal staffing would be about 75 firefighters, Trevor Peyus, firefighter and president of the Ithaca Professional Fire Fighters Association said.

When there is a call, Basher said only two firefighters go out on trucks. The national standard is four people.

“We make it work because we’re awesome and grateful, but it’s very very dangerous when you show up at a house fire with two people on a truck. It takes time to get stuff going. This is a huge step in the right direction, the first time we’ve ever gotten a grant like that. We’ve got to keep these people and get more,” Basher said.

Assistant Fire Chief Brian Weinstein said staffing at the Ithaca Fire Department used to be higher, but positions have slowly been cut over time. He said the SAFER grant has helped not create new positions, but fill vacated ones.

“We’ve been whittling away at our staffing levels at a time when our call volume’s been going up,” Weinstein said. “The workload’s been increasing in all sorts of different areas.”

Federal grants have also helped fund air packs and the machine that fills the packs to give firefighters quality breathing air.

“We are incredibly grateful for getting anything … it’s competitive, they could go to anybody. We’re lucky to have what we have and it’s a great step in the right directions, but we need more. And we’re not being greedy. We’re trying to get to the basic levels,” Basher said.

The Senate passed the AFG and SAFER Program Reauthorization Act last week and it now moves to the House of Representatives.

Featured image: From left, Lt. Tom Basher, Assistant Chief Brian Weinstein and Trevor Peyus, president of the Ithaca Professional Fire Fighters Association. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at koconnor@ithacavoice.com and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.