City looks to add 15 new firefighters for new station. And there’s a plan to cover those salaries for 3 years.

The Harrisonburg Fire Department responded to the March 2019 fire at the Southview Apartments. (File photo)

By Ryan Alessi, publisher

The Harrisonburg Fire Department will move ahead with plans to add 15 new firefighters over the next year so they can begin training staff for the new fire station near EMU’s campus that is slated to open in January 2024. But the city might not have to cover their salaries until 2026.

The Fire Department plans to apply for a federal grant that could cover those firefighters’ salaries — about $1 million a year — for three years, Fire Chief Matthew Tobia told the city council Tuesday evening during its virtual meeting.

The council gave Tobia the go-ahead to apply for a “Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response” grant. That grant fund has $560 million that is expected to fund 500 awards to community fire departments, especially those that are seeking to reduce response times. And cutting down the time it takes for firefighters to respond to incidents near EMU’s campus was a key reason the council cited last month when approving construction of the city’s fifth fire station.

The grant is part of a Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency fund that will cover the full cost of newly hired firefighters for three years, Tobia said. If the department doesn’t get awarded the grant, he recommended that the council delay construction by a year in order to apply again during 2023.

The new fire station is being designed now. Along with it, Tobia said the city will add a new fire engine, which will take 22 months to be built and delivered because of supply chain issues. Typically new engines are built and delivered in 13 months, he said. 

Even though the new station isn’t supposed to open until January 2024, Tobia said it’s important to begin hiring the new firefighters starting in July, so they can train throughout 2023 and avoid problems other cities have had when new fire stations opened without enough staff.

“We want to make sure we have the personnel fully trained and ready to deploy before the fire station doors are ready to be opened,” Tobia said.

‘Challenging times’ in the city

Interim City Manager Ande Banks said the city’s workforce has been hit hard over the last week as staff members have had to quarantine because of illness or exposure to the coronavirus, which has been fueled by the contagious Omicron variant.

“City staff is struggling under the challenging times under Omicron,” Banks said in a nearly empty city council chambers while the council members joined virtually from other locations.

He said the number of city workers who have gotten ill is at the highest point since the pandemic began and nearly a fifth of the 850 city workers have had to quarantine.

That has come at a challenging time, especially for the Public Works Department that has had to clear snow totaling more than 6 inches twice this month. Council member Chris Jones commended the department’s employees and Public Works Director Tom Hartman for their work as the staff cleared streets and public sidewalks while also keeping up with trash collection and other duties.

Banks said it required an all-hands-on-deck approach for the Jan. 16 snow, when the city asked for all workers with commercial drivers licenses to help with snow plowing.  

The surge of cases in Harrisonburg was the reason the council approved Banks’ recommendation at the last meeting to switch to virtual meetings for 30-45 days.

“I certainly hope in the next couple weeks we will look back and see this week or so was the peak of the surge,” Banks said. “We are still maintaining the same level of services, but we are facing some challenging times right now.”

Enrolling in SolSmart

Harrisonburg took its first step toward enrolling in a national energy program aimed at making it easier for residents, businesses and the city to install solar panels. The SolSmart program, which is funded through the U.S. Department of Energy, helps communities review policies and ordinances to remove barriers that make it more difficult to install solar panels.

The program also provides technical expertise, and it relies on a rating system, similar to the LEED energy efficiency ratings, with bronze, silver and gold levels.

Hartman, the public works director, told the council that cracking the entry level of bronze designation is a challenge. He said 75% of cities fail to do so on their first try.

Trying to replace lost trees

City staff have been planting an average of 300 trees a year over the last several years to replace the 1,000 trees lost to the invasive Emerald Ash Borer. As a result, Harrisonburg is struggling to maintain its total tree canopy, which covers about 26% of the city, said Jeremy Harold, tHarrisonburg’s greenspace manager.

Harold provided the council with the findings of the city’s Urban Forest Management Master Plan, in which city employees have charted more than 2,000 trees so far, including data about their species, maintenance needs and size. The plan will allow the public works staff to craft a more systematic approach to maintaining and caring for the trees, Harold said.

On average, U.S. cities have a tree canopy of 26%, but that figure is closer to 40% for East Coast cities. Harrisonburg’s tree canopy is on par with Charlottesville but well below cities like Roanoke, Waynesboro and Richmond that were above 42%.

“We hope to increase our tree planting,” Harold told the council.

But he said it’s more complicated than just putting them into the ground. The city is trying to diversify and plant less than 10 percent of any one variety “so we don’t have one pest come through and wipe us out again,” Harold said.

“It’s easy to come out and plant the trees, it’s the maintenance” that requires staff time and effort. For instance, they needed to be watered regularly during last summer’s hot and dry stretch.

A slide from Jeremy Harold’s presentation to the city council on Tuesday shows how Harrisonburg stacks up to other tree canopies in the region.

Also during the meeting:

  • The council approved $200,000 in community block grant to Open Doors and $136,000 to the Salvation Army to cover additional costs associated with providing shelter space for people experiencing homelessness and who must quarantine because of COVID-19 exposure.  
  • Area residents can take a survey about their transportation needs, pet peeves and wish-lists starting Feb. 1. The Harrisonburg-Rockingham Metropolitan Planning Organization is conducting the survey online — but with a paper option as well — through March 2 on its website:

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