The Villages Public Safety Department has been awarded a multi-million-dollar grant to hire new 27 firefighters.
The $6.52 million SAFER grant was awarded by FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security. It provides funding for the firefighters for three years, which includes salary and benefits. And unlike in past years when similar grants were awarded, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, departments that received the SAFER grants won’t be required to provide any kind of matching funds.
Fire Chief Edmund Cain said he was thrilled that his department was one of 14 in Florida to receive the grants, which included Lake County Fire Rescue. He said he had planned on adding nine firefighters per year over the next three years as The Villages continues to grow, but thanks to the grant, he can add all of those firefighters right away, which contributes to the goal continuing to grow as a premier fire department in Florida’s Friendliest Hometown.
“We’re extremely happy,” Cain said. “We’re quite honored to be one of 14 departments in the state to receive this generous grant.”
Cain said the grants were created to provide funding to help departments comply with staffing, response and operational standards established by the National Fire Protection Agency. He said the additional staffing also could help his department receive an even higher rating from the Insurance Services Office (ISO), which ultimately can reduce insurance premiums for homeowners.
The Villages Public Safety Department currently provides ISO Fire Protection Class 2 services to residents and visitors in the community. The department is one of 112 out of 517 in the state and one of 1,597 across the country classified as an ISO 2 fire department.
“Insurance companies use the ISO score to help set home insurance rates,” Cain said. “That is something we take quite seriously and we are always striving to do whatever it takes to lower that rating. Needless to say, a home that is less likely to be severely damaged or destroyed by a fire is cheaper to insure.”
Like Cain, District Manager Richard Baier said he’s thrilled to see the fire department receive such a large grant that clearly will help with staffing levels and the enhanced response to residents’ needs.
“I was informed by agency that there were only some 400 grants awarded during this competitive process,” he said.
The Villages Public Safety Department started in October 1999 as a rural fire agency and over the past 20 years has grown into a full-fledged urban agency – much different than many others in the local area like Sumter County Fire & EMS, the Fruitland Park Fire Department, the Montverde Fire Department and the Groveland Fire Department, to name a few.
The additional staffing provided by the SAFER grant also falls in line with the impressive growth of the fire department. It started out with one station at The Villages Annex, one fire chief and nine firefighter/paramedics. The crews handled 1,040 calls that first year, with the expectation that the call volume would increase dramatically each year.
Fast-forward to today, with The Villages being home to 134,000-plus residents scattered over 90 square miles. The department now boasts nine stations, a fire chief, a deputy fire chief, 123 firefighters and an administrative staff of 16. In the last year, Villages firefighters responded to 29,220 calls for service – a 2,708 percent increase from the total number of calls handled that first year. So it’s easy to see the importance of the increased staffing levels as the community continues to grow at a rapid pace south of State Road 44, with the newest sections likely to extend as far south as Bushnell.
“We take our staffing levels quite seriously and we are proud to be in a growth mode,” Cain said. “We’ve been able to hire some truly outstanding firefighters and we see that trend continuing for years to come.”
As many residents know, The Villages Public Safety Department also is known for something that is the envy of many departments across the country – an average response time of four minutes and 39 seconds. Largely because of that, the department also boasts a cardiac survival rate of 40 percent.
Now that the department can move forward with an even larger staff in place, Cain said he and his team remain committed to being a premier fire department that always provides an extremely high level of care.
“Our residents and visitors deserve the highest level of fire and emergency medical care possible,” he said. “We will always strive to be best of the best as we continue to grow alongside this amazing community.”