Grant allows Immokalee to rehire laid off firefighters

Six Immokalee firefighters will be offered their jobs back, and a fire station will reopen after the Immokalee Fire Department received a grant from the federal government to hire more personnel.

The Immokalee Fire Control District received a $700,000 Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) last month, according to Immokalee Fire Chief Rita Greenberg.

The goal of the grant is to increase the number of "trained, 'front line' firefighters available in their communities," according to the FEMA website.

The grant, which is for two years, pays 100 percent of the salary and benefits for the firefighters, as well as fire department costs for those employees, including payroll taxes collected under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA).

"It's for the guys who ride the truck," Greenberg said of the grant. "We are short six firefighters. We had to lay off six firefighters last year and those jobs will be offered back to the employees who were laid off first."

Six Immokalee firefighters accepted severance packages in June 2011 following a month of discussions about budgetary concerns, layoffs and reinstatements.

Pam Brown, chairwoman of the Immokalee Board of Fire Commissioners, said two of the six are working somewhere else now.

"Hopefully, they will want to come back," Brown said. "We would love to have them back."

Brown said the grant is welcome news.

"It will be great. We had to close one of the stations down on Lake Trafford Road. We will be able to open it up full time and have three fire stations operating," she said.

Following the layoffs of the firefighters last year, the Immokalee Fire Control District closed station 31, which is located at 1107 Carson Road near the intersection of Lake Trafford Road. Brown said the station was open from time to time with volunteer firefighters, but not on a consistent basis.

The department's two other stations — at 502 E. New Market Road in Immokalee and 4819 Ave Maria Blvd. in Ave Maria — remained open and staffed.

"It will improve response time, drive time. It will take us from five personnel to seven personnel per shift," said Greenberg.

Greenberg said the firefighters hired will be told that their jobs are secure for two years. After that, keeping their jobs will be dependent on the department's ability to secure another grant or a better tax base.

"We're trying to do the best we can, but we have to start stabilizing the tax base and not putting more affordable housing can contribute to the base," said Brown. "We are appreciative we go the grant."

Greenberg said the Immokalee Fire Control District anticipates the firefighters starting Aug. 6, following the completion of paperwork associated with the grant.

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