Three rural Alachua County communities are set to have an increase in firefighters by the end of the year.
The increase from three firefighters a shift to four will give the responding stations the minimum number of firefighters required by law to immediately go into a burning building when no one’s life is in danger. (There are no minimums for when a person is inside the burning building.)
The Alachua County Board of County Commissioners approved the increase in August through a $1.3 million SAFER grant for Alachua County Fire Rescue. The full grant amount will go to hiring one extra firefighter per shift — 12 total — for the Archer, Hawthorne and Waldo stations.
“Lots of things will be done more quickly and efficiently because of the grant,” Fire Chief of Alachua County William Northcutt said.
Hiring is ongoing, and the goal is to have the new firefighters start by Dec. 1. All grant money will go toward their salaries and benefits.
SAFER — or Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response — grants are provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They allow for local fire departments and volunteer institutions to maintain or increase the number of firefighters in their communities, according to the FEMA website.
Alachua County’s new grant will last for two years and builds on the one approved in 2014. Before the 2014 grant, certain Alachua County stations had only two firefighters on call.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has a policy known as the two-in/two-out rule, which says that firefighters cannot begin interior firefighting until four are present.
The Archer, Hawthorne and Waldo stations have only three firefighters per shift, meaning that if a fire occurs in their jurisdiction and there is no imminent threat to life, they have to wait for other stations to join them.
“The closest station to Waldo is Melrose, which means it could be a 10- to 12-minute response time,” said Harold Theus, Alachua County’s deputy fire chief.
A simulation provided to WUFT News by Waldo’s fire station showed what the standard procedure is if only three firefighters are available on scene.
The three arrive with a fire engine and a separate tanker truck, which is the main water supply for fighting fires when hydrants aren’t nearby, according to Lt. Misty Woods of the Waldo station.
Firefighters take a 360-degree walk around the building to determine the best spot to enter, and they then bring their equipment to that spot, Woods said. If there is no imminent threat to life in the building, she said, firefighters must wait to enter until another unit arrives.
Theus described such situations as “organized chaos.”
The difference between having three and four firefighters at a fire, Theus said, could be the difference between saving the building and having it crumble to the ground.