$1M in federal funds to flow for firefighters

<p>Naperville fire chief Mark Puknaitis (right) is joined by Naperville police chief Bob Marshall as they offer thoughts on the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., during a memorial service on Tuesday, September 11, 2012. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media</p>

Naperville fire chief Mark Puknaitis (right) is joined by Naperville police chief Bob Marshall as they offer thoughts on the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., during a memorial service on Tuesday, September 11, 2012. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media

Naperville’s firefighting agency will be getting a hand with covering its staffing expenses, thanks to more than $1 million in federal grant money announced by local lawmakers.

The offices of U.S. Rep. Bill Foster (D-Naperville) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) notified the city of the $1,002,000 award, part of the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response program administered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The grant program is designed to help prevent staff cuts or to rehire responders who have been let go because of funding constraints.

“It is critical that we make sure our first responders have the tools they need to keep our communities safe,” Foster said in a news release.

Naperville Fire Department Chief Mark Puknaitis said the city applied for the SAFER funds last year. The department currently has six vacancies in its operations division, he said, and several current firefighters plan to retire this year.

The wave of retirees was not unexpected. When the city’s growth boom was gaining steam in the late 1970s and early ’80s, firefighters were being hired in groups of 15 or more, the chief said. During that period, the city’s three fire stations increased to the 10 in use today.

“Our department is in a natural progression of people retiring,” Puknaitis said. “We’re going to see that trend continue, in the next five to 10 years for sure.”

While the new hires will be paid less, he noted the flip side is that they will not bring to the job the body of experience in public safety that has been accrued among those leaving the profession.

“We need to have the funding to replace them,” said the chief, emphasizing that his department minimizes personnel costs as much as possible, and applies for grants at nearly every opportunity. “An award like this helps me tremendously in getting approval for positions that I have in my budget. … It’s not, ‘Hey we’ve got extra money so let’s put a couple more people on.’”

The money, to be funneled to the department over the next two years, is required to go to personnel and benefits. It can’t be used for such purposes as remodeling a firehouse or buying new equipment, Puknaitis said.

“A million bucks over two years is huge,” he said. “And they don’t give that kind of money to just anybody.”

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