FEMA grant to save Tacoma firefighters’ jobs

For the past six months, Tacoma firefighter Matt Graham has held out hope that he could hang on to the job that had been his childhood dream.

Last year, the 30-year-old father left a firefighter job in Tukwila to take one in Tacoma, achieving what he called “a lifetime goal” to work for the Tacoma Fire Department.

Just a few months later, Graham got hit with a pink slip. By December, he and three dozen other city firefighters faced imminent layoffs due to proposed city budget cuts.

This week, Graham learned his dream will survive. He and his colleagues’ jobs all have been spared, thanks to a two-year, $7.7 million Federal Emergency Management Agency grant meant to help local communities keep front-line responders on the job.

“I’m proud to be a Tacoma firefighter,” Graham said Friday during a media event at city fire headquarters to announce the grant. “And I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve Tacoma and surrounding communities.”

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell joined Mayor Marilyn Strickland and city fire union, port and local business officials to trumpet the good news about the usually high award of FEMA’s Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response grant.

Known as SAFER, the highly competitive grant provides funding to fire agencies nationwide to increase and retain front-line responders in local communities.

“This $7.7 million grant will allow us to avoid layoffs this year that would have resulted in a significant reduction in the emergency services the Tacoma Fire Department provide around the clock to this city,” interim Tacoma Fire Chief Jim Duggan said.

Tacoma’s grant is an unusually large amount given for the competitive program. Last year, the average SAFER grant was about $1.5 million among the 32 awarded. An $8.1 million grant to a Michigan-based department was the largest in 2011.

In 2009, only 9 percent of 2,128 applicants received awards.

In January, Strickland joined Tacoma Fire Union officials in Washington, D.C., to lobby for the grant. Cantwell and fellow Democrats U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks sent support letters to FEMA on the city’s behalf.

Acceptance of the two-year grant means the city cannot lay off any firefighter for the next 24 months or it will have to refund the grant, officials said.