POWHATAN – The Powhatan County Fire and Rescue Department was so successful in the last four years at recruiting and retaining its volunteer firefighters that it was recently awarded almost $600,000 to keep those numbers trending upward.
For the second time, the department has been awarded a Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant. This four-year grant worth $594,012 is aimed at helping the county attract new firefighters to its volunteer force and retain both them and firefighters already actively serving the county.
The county had received a SAFER grant in 2016 for $533,368, which it has used in the last four years to grow and maintain the number of trained, front line firefighters available in the community, said Fire and Rescue Chief Phil Warner. The current grant funds run out on Dec. 2, but the new grant will begin on Nov. 25.
The grant required that the county was successful in recruiting 40 active IDLH (immediately dangerous to life and health) firefighters to serve as volunteers in the county. In the last four years, the county has exceeded that goal, adding 51 volunteer IDLH firefighters to its roster, Warner said.
“The first four years were so successful, continuing it is just a win for the county and the taxpayers of Powhatan. That is a program FEMA is going to continue to fund vs. continuing it in a line item in our budget,” Warner said.
If Powhatan hadn’t received the grant again, Warner said he would have been looking for ways to continue some of the most successful aspects of the program to offer volunteers consistency and not take away any of the benefits they have received.
One of the key features of the grant is that it will continue to fund the part-time salary of Joe Sposa, the recruitment and retention coordinator who was hired in 2017 after the first grant was awarded. His job has focused on building the program up in the last four years and finding what works for Powhatan to attract and keep volunteers.
“I was quite elated we were able to continue the service to the community and our volunteer contingency for another grant term, which provides for training, equipment, and increased membership potentially,” Sposa said.
In addition to Sposa’s position, the grant will fund personal protective equipment, new member costs, awards and incentives for operational activities, funding to attend the Fire Department Instructor Conference in Indianapolis for training, a grant writer fee, and a marketing program, Warner said. Included in the items the grant will fund is the cost for full turnout gear for eight new volunteer firefighters each year, which is a great savings for the county, he added.
Going into the second grant, the department has already laid the groundwork in some areas where their efforts will have the most impact, he said. For instance, they have a better idea now how and where to target marketing that attracts new recruits.
“The SAFER grant provided an avenue to have potential members introduced to the system through social media and advertising, and we were able to streamline the process. We were able to speed up the process to have applicants get into memberships within the agencies,” Sposa said. “That blossomed into training for new members, which blossomed into more responses and quicker emergency responses from our volunteer partners.”
Warner pointed out that while the grant may only be applied to attracting firefighters, the Powhatan Volunteer Rescue Squad used some of the momentum of the campaign to boost its own aggressive recruitment efforts and found good success.
On the retention side, when firefighters meet certain requirements for active status, they receive $500 annually, Sposa said.
“I think we are enticing members who weren’t as active to come back in and get more involved,” he said.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.