The Newton Fire Department has received a grant that will total more than $650,000 to add six new firefighters.

The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant will fund up to 90 percent of the salaries and benefits in the first year, 80 percent in the second year, 50 percent in the third year, and 30 percent in the fourth year, after which the city must fund the full cost.

“This award will be a huge financial blessing to the community,” Fire/EMS Chief Gary Denny said. “This will be a very exciting challenge for our department.”

The new staffing is being added to deal with an increase in call volume, an increase in simultaneous calls and the anticipated construction of a third fire station in south Newton.

The department currently staffs 39 full-time line firefighters.

Two firefighter/EMTs or firefighter/paramedics will be hired for each of the department’s three shifts.

The hiring of the new firefighters and the new south station were part of the recommendations made by a 2006 Station Location and Resource Deployment Study.

Denny said although the new hires eventually will help staff the new station, with construction anticipated to begin in 2010, the new recruits are needed now to deal with an increasing work load.

In the past 10 years, call volume has increased more than 42 percent, but firefighter staffing has increased only 18 percent.

As little as five years ago, the department was responding to seven calls per day. Today, the department averages 10 calls per day, Denny said.

In addition to handling more calls, the department increasingly has been stretched thin by simultaneous calls, during which staff members are out on two, three and four calls at one time, Denny said.

About one in every four calls occurs while the department has committed resources to an existing incident.

“We can’t put one of these calls on the shelf,” Denny said. “When we get an emergency call, we have a duty to respond to it immediately. That can task our staffing levels. If we can better respond to multiple calls, that will benefit our customers, which is the general public.”

In addition to the six new positions, the department also will fill two existing positions.

That means the department will have its largest training class in recent times. The most the department has ever run through its in-house training academy are four recruits at one time, Denny said.

The new recruits will go through six weeks of intensive training and then several months of on-the-job training.

“Our firefighters already are responding to a bigger number of calls, and we are going to compound that by twice the number of new hires we have ever handled before,” Denny said. ... “At first it is going to take more time and is going to be a challenge we will have to meet, but the end result is that it will save time.”

The grant officially begins March 19 but includes a 90-day recruiting period, so the recruiting and hiring process will begin immediately.

The grant is a highly competitive grant, with 1,314 applications submitted in 2008 (10 from Kansas). To date, the grant award to Newton is the only 2008 award in Kansas, and is the largest staffing grant ever awarded in Kansas.