Long Beach is getting over $3 million in federal funding that will allow it to hire seven firefighters through 2026 and could help the city avoid mothballing an East Long Beach fire engine.

The City Council voted Tuesday night to approve the city’s acceptance of an over $3 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant, which is funded through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It requires agencies that accept funds to maintain staffing levels or risk having to pay back all or some of the grant funds.

The grant will fund seven positions, which the department hopes to fill through upcoming academies. While the site where those firefighters will work hasn’t been finalized, officials believe that the funding will be used to keep Engine 17, which is based near Stearns Park, in action.

“Our office has worked very hard for the restoration of E-17, and this grant certainly makes that restoration much easier,” said Councilmember Daryl Supernaw, who represents the area where Station 17 is located.

Engine 17 has not been structurally funded in the city’s budget for some time, meaning that it has been operating through overtime hours of existing firefighters, and now, through a three-year grant.

Long Beach had previously applied for a SAFER grant in 2021 to fund Engine 17, which was cut from the city’s budget in 2011 before being brought back online in 2019. City officials said that its reintroduction could improve response times by over a minute.

When the council approved the application for the grant in 2021, City Manager Tom Modica warned against it because of the potential for the department to have to make cuts, which could trigger the payback clause of the grant and cost the city $4.8 million.

The city also declined a SAFER grant in 2019 over concerns it wouldn’t be able to comply with its rules.

Rex Pritchard, the president of the Long Beach Firefighters Association, said the additional funding was a welcome surprise that will help the department’s staffing levels.

“It’s huge,” Pritchard said. “It’s immense, and I’m just super glad the department and the council members supported the action because it’s literally free federal money that helps relieve stress on the general fund.”

It could also reduce stress on the rank and file that Pritchard represents.

Long Beach firefighters told consultants in a yet-to-be-released report that staffing levels were so low that many members were being “force hired” (required to work on days off) multiple times per month, which is taking a toll on morale and the personal health of the department’s employees.

The report was initiated as a way for the department to identify cuts or new sources of revenue to help it comply with a directive from city management to shave off $1.9 million from its budget in 2020.

Pritchard said that while things are moving in a positive direction, forced hiring is still an issue for medics and firefighters, but he believes there’s “light at the end of the tunnel.”

He’s hopeful that Engine 17 will be structurally funded in the upcoming budget that the city is expected to make public next month.

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.