NEW ORLEANS — A $15.9 million federal grant to hire 63 New Orleans firefighters was announced with much fanfare in September by Mayor LaToya Cantrell and then-Fire Superintendent Tim McConnell.
“Sixty-three firefighters, this is a huge win for the city of New Orleans,” Cantrell said at the press conference.
“The goal will be to get them in as soon as possible, get our staffing levels up,” McConnell added.
But now some of that money could be in jeopardy because the department has been slow to hire recruits ahead of the mid-February starting date for the grant. The coveted FEMA grant – known as Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response or SAFER – covers training and salaries for three years before it expires.
“That was a huge boost for us, boost in morale. But that was back in August,” said Aaron Mischler, president of the Firefighters Association of New Orleans. “Here we are four months later, almost five months later, and still not a single person in the fire academy.”
The city’s Civil Service Department says 16 applicants are ready to be hired, having passed all the steps of the extensive screening process. But the fire department has yet to officially put them on the rolls as it tries to get a full class of 25 recruits before launching a new academy class.
The department expected to have a class up and running in December, but bureaucratic delays have slowed the hiring process. An email to the applicants from Civil Service dated Nov. 5 reveals the extent of the delays:
“This notice serves to advise you that the tentative start date of the Fire Recruit class is being pushed back. We will not be able to begin the class on December 7th. The impacts of Covid-19 have slowed down our pre-employment screening procedures, and we have not yet been able to clear a sufficient number of candidates to fill the initial class.”
Interim Fire Superintendent Roman Nelson said COVID has been the primary culprit in slowing the pipeline to get applicants through different stages of the hiring process, especially agility testing and background checks.
“Because of the COVID restrictions and everything, Civil Service was kind of delayed in some of the agility testing,” Nelson said.
Those delays could result in the city not being able to spend the full $15.9 million, Nelson admitted. According to rules of the grant, all 63 positions should be filled before the grant clock starts running in mid-February. Once the grant starts, the city has a three-year window to use it.
With the city straining to get a class or 25, hiring 63 recruits by the deadline is now an impossibility.
“Since we can't do 63 firefighters at one time, we're not going to be able to use all of the federal grant funding,” Nelson said.
Mischler said the delay is a costly missed opportunity, especially with the department limping at historic staffing lows. About 570 firefighters are working now, civil service records show, well short of the department’s budgeted staffing of 635.
“The clock's ticking,” Mischler said. “I don't understand what the hold up is on this. We're leaving millions of dollars on the table and it doesn't seem like there's a sense of urgency to do anything about it.”
But Nelson said speeding up the hiring process is now one of his top priorities. He said he's prepared to start a class soon, even if it's not a full class.
"The latest we would start is March 1,” he said. “However many we have cleared on March 1, that's what we're going to go with.”
Nelson said a second recruit class could run simultaneously, if enough people can be hired to fill it.
The amount of money that could be forfeited by the city remains unknown, but ever day beyond the mid-February start date in which the department has not added the 63 new hires could see money slipping away.
Mischler said he is pushing for the city to apply for a waiver to extend the period of the grant, but with such a competitive national grant program, he said that could be a longshot.