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Taylorsville Journal

FEMA grant funding assisting the Unified Fire Authority in a big way

Jan 27, 2020 11:48AM ● By Carl Fauver

UFA Fire Station 118 — west of city hall — is one of two stations in Taylorsville and the only one in the city requiring seismic retrofitting. (Carl Fauver/City Journals)

By Carl Fauver | [email protected] 

When it comes to making big wishes to get the things they need, Unified Fire Authority officials have found a more reliable method than leaving milk and cookies out on Christmas Eve.

UFA members express their “wishes” (in the form of grant requests) to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, through its “Assistance to Firefighters Grant” program.

Recently, that technique earned a more than $400,000 AFG grant for the local fire authority. And since they got what they asked for the first time, UFA officials plan to request a much larger “present,” later this year. 

“We need to make seismic structural upgrades to several of our UFA fire stations and have drafted a grant request to FEMA for $2,746,275,” said Assistant Fire Chief Mike Watson.

State officials spent last month reviewing the grant request. It was expected to be formally submitted to FEMA last Friday (Jan, 31, after press deadline).

Meanwhile, the already approved smaller grant will be spent this year on a completely different, new UFA program.

“The Unified Fire Authority has received a $422,000 federal grant to assist our firefighters with crisis management,” UFA Captain Richard Rich recently reported at a Taylorsville City Council meeting. “The grant will fund several different things.”

Assistant Fire Chief Jay Ziolkowski said much of the funding will be spent creating a partnership between his department and the University of Utah to benefit UFA firefighters.

“This funding has to do with improving mental health, what’s being called ‘brain wellness,’” Ziolkowski said. “We conduct baseline physicals and baseline blood screening tests for all of our firefighters. This grant will allow us to do similar baseline ‘brain health’ testing.”

The University of Utah has been contracted to conduct the tests and create those baselines for the 430 existing UFA firefighters, along with those who are hired this year. Part of the grant is expected to fund additional U of U staffing. Another part of it may go to the firefighters themselves.

“We will try to pay firefighters to undergo the testing,” Ziolkowski said. “Even though attitudes are changing, there is still a stigma attached to mental health. But we feel it is very important and hope to compensate our firefighters for the time they spend getting tested.”

In short, UFA officials said the tragic and traumatic things firefighters see while on duty take their toll. And today’s firefighters don’t spend as much down time together as they did in years past, which traditionally provided them an opportunity to talk through their feelings. 

“Firefighters used to sleep in shared dorms at their fire stations and always ate meals together,” Ziolkowski said. “But now there are more private rooms at fire stations, and they often don’t all eat together.”

In addition to creating baseline mental health testing, the new program will also establish peer counseling within the Unified Fire Authority.

“We plan to provide some of our firefighters with training so they can assist others in coping with mental challenges related to the job,” Ziolkowski said. “This new program is not being developed because our newer personnel are somehow ‘softer’ than previous firefighters. It’s being created because we have more of an awareness of the issue now. It is another attempt to break down the [mental health] stigma.”

Firefighter mental health screening is expected to begin at the University of Utah in March.

As for that much larger $2.7 million grant proposal, Watson is confident FEMA will approve it. 

“My best guess is we have an 80% or higher chance of getting the full amount to complete our upgrades, in preparation for a potential earthquake,” he said. “We feel we have done our job in getting the cost figures together. We also have letters of support from our UFA board members.”

One of those board members is Taylorsville Mayor Kristie Overson.

“It is critical for our city to have emergency services ready to go at all times,” Overson said. “That is why the new Station 117 was built. We were afraid the old station would crumble. If we have an earthquake, we have got to make sure our fire stations are ready to respond.”

As it turns out, Taylorsville City’s two UFA stations are well ahead of the earthquake-ready curve. Watson said Station 117, which opened less than three years ago on Redwood Road (4965 South), was built to code and will require no funding. Station 118 (immediately west of city hall at 5317 South 2700 West), meanwhile, will need very little retrofit funding. 

“We have 24 fire stations in our system and 15 of them need work,” Watson said. “The nine most recently built stations (including 117) do not need anything done. In Taylorsville, Station 118 was found to be structurally sound. In essence, the money we need to spend there will be to strap equipment down.”

This will include securing the station’s back-up electrical generator, mechanical and electrical equipment and piping.

“Every piece of equipment in the fire station that is more than 6 feet tall or over 400 pounds needs to be secured,” Watson said.

The firm UFA contracted to inspect the stations and come up with anticipated costs (KPFF Consulting Engineers of Salt Lake) estimates the total seismic retrofit at Station 118 will run $26,000. Taylorsville City would be on the hook for 25% of that, or $6,500. Other municipalities UFA serves will face much higher costs for the 25% match FEMA requires. 

“The vast majority of the grant funding — $2.3-million of it — will be spent on structural improvements, which KPFF determined would not be necessary at Station 118,” Watson said. “We are excited to make these improvements. We’ve been telling the public for years to prepare for an earthquake, and yet we have not had the funding to completely do it ourselves. Now we will catch up (if the grant request is approved).”

The Unified Fire Authority expects to receive the official word from FEMA on the $2,746,275 request by Dec. 30.

Work on the seismic upgrades at Taylorsville Station 118  and the others requiring it throughout the UFA system is expected to begin about a year from now.

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