ITHACA, N.Y.—A slew of local fire departments are receiving a financial boost from the federal government thanks to staffing grants announced last week. 

The Dryden, Freeville, Etna and Varna Fire Departments were awarded $397,710 collectively from the federal government through the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER grant), which aims to help fire departments increase staffing and train incoming firefighters. 

Additionally, Varna received an extra grant for breathing equipment enhancements.

Particularly in recent years, local fire departments have struggled to maintain staffing levels, both at the professional and volunteer levels throughout Tompkins County. Local governments have tried to create tax incentives to make first responder jobs more attractive, while departments have recommitted themselves to finding more creative ways to recruit

Chris O’Connor, Fire Lieutenant at the Ithaca Fire Department and the Town of Dryden’s fire coordinator, said even though the grant was put in the name of the Freeville Fire Department, the Dryden, Etna and Varna Fire Departments collaborated with the Freeville Fire Department and created a proposal that was then sent to the federal government on behalf of all of them. The money will be distributed among all the departments involved.

Applicants for the grant must apply through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The program helps individuals with natural disasters and has several grant programs that fire departments can apply for. The winners of the SAFER grant are chosen by how closely they align with the core values of the program as well as the severity of the financial concerns of the department.

The grant money will help address staffing issues, O’Connor said, and its usage will be focused on recruitment and retaining firefighters. 

“People are already getting price quotes for all sorts of recruiting materials,” O’Connor said. “I would suspect that they’ll actually be boots on the ground, people engaged in active recruiting within a week or two.”

Additionally, the Varna Fire Department individually received $121,904 from a different federal grant program through FEMA, allowing the department to buy 20 new self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBA). That, in addition to the six that the Varna department was able to purchase earlier this year, represent a “crucial advancement in our firefighting capabilities” according to an announcement from the department.