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Thanks to a $124,000 grant Newton will purchase a fire-simulation trailer that will help train the city's fire department to safely fight structure fires.
"In order for our firefighters to become state-certified, they have to participate in a live, controlled burn setting," Newton Fire Chief Kevin Yoder said, adding that a fire trailer provides just such a live fire situation. "Live fire evolutions are the most important training we provide for our firefighters. You don't realize how well a firefighter is going to perform until they face a live fire."
However, the grant requires a $12,400 match that was unanimously approved by City Council, which previously mandated curtailment in grant applications where matching funds are required.
"They did say, 'Don't apply for anything else before you come back and see us,'" said Newton City Manager Todd Clark. "This (grant) application was submitted before they made that statement."
During Newton City Council's Nov. 17 meeting, the city manager's report included details on an Assistance to Firefighters Grant that will deliver $124,000 for the purchase of a mobile fire training trailer. A non-agenda item for the regular meeting, the measure required Council action as the agency providing the grant needed an immediate answer for whether Newton would provide matching funds, Clark said. The grant is one the city has sought every year since its inception, according to Yoder, who estimated the Assistance to Firefighters Grant has provided a half million dollars in grants to the city.
"We faced a decision. We have a piece of equipment that is needed and could be utilized," Clark said, adding city staff could refuse the grant based on Council's mandate, or "I could take it to City Council and let them have a productive conversation. If they say, 'No,' that's fine. If they say, 'Yes,' we have the opportunity for a piece of equipment that is needed."
Traditionally, firefighters have trained in vacant buildings, where controlled burns are set and extinguished during exercises.
"In the past, we have acquired three or four structures a year to burn in," Yoder said. "The process to do that is becoming more difficult."
Between a shortage of vacant homes, dangers inherent in some abandoned buildings, and rules regarding air pollution caused by open fires, Yoder said structures that can be used for a practice burn are getting hard to come by.
Conversely, the mobile fire trailer is made of non-combustible materials, and it can be used in training exercises repeatedly, Yoder said, and the trailers burn more cleanly. Instructors can put materials, such as pallets or fuel, into the trailer, set them ablaze and create a safer place for firefighters to train.
Funds for the matching grant will come from the fire department's budget, Clark said. Some of that money will come from savings on budgeted equipment purchases within the department, Yoder said. Meanwhile, the city's fire chief said revenue received for fire inspections and and other permits is already ahead of schedule.
"We will likely exceed budgeted revenue," Clark said. "The revenue is going to be there for the fire inspections."
Still, City Council members voiced concern over the grant and providing requested matching funds.
"At some point in time, we need to understand that if we make more than we anticipate, we can put that money aside. We don't necessarily have to spend it," said Newton Mayor Robert Mullinax. "The fact is that we get notice of this grant, and we are given a day to make this decision, and after the discussions we have had about grants, I don't think it is fair to Council."
Council members also asked about making cuts in the fire department's approved budget to fund the grant match.
"When we have these savings, it may be prudent to understand we don't have to spend this money," said Council member Bill Lutz. "I would rather see you cut something out of the budget. If you want this more than something else in the budget, cut out something else."
Yoder said that the only way to cut costs in a budget "that didn't have much to begin with" is "sending people home."
City Council gave approval to provide matching fund in a voice vote, and no dissenting votes were cast.
"I support this, and I think it is a good thing," Clark said of the grant. "Does it come at a bad time when we've had to reduce budgets? Yes. But in consideration of our total budget, $12,400 compared to a $34 million budget is not a huge expense, ,but it will have long-lasting benefits for the city and the fire department. I think that is one of the things you have to look at."