NORTH PORT — North Port Fire Rescue received more than $2.5 million from a federal grant to hire 21 new firefighters.

The SAFER, or Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, grant will pay 75 percent of the salary and benefits for the new firefighters for the next two years, according to a news release. The grant will pay 35 percent in their third year.

Fire Rescue Chief Scott Titus said the new hires will be part of the department’s expansion into the West Villages area. He said a plan is being developed to build a new fire station in the West Villages, which is expected to open by late March next year to coincide with the first game at the new Atlanta Braves spring training stadium.

“We are very fortunate to be able to do it through the SAFER grant because it helps absorb the impact and the cost of those personnel over a three-year period instead of having to take that on all at once, which personnel costs are the biggest part of our budget, so to be able to have that grant and help spread that over three years is an incredible blessing,” Titus said. “It really helps there not be a huge impact all at one time on citizens in the community.”

Titus said a new union contract for city firefighters approved by the City Commission earlier this year made pay and benefits more attractive to job seekers, which helped to speed up the recruiting process.

“We had people that were here that were looking elsewhere because we weren’t as competitive, but with the support of the community and the commission and the city manager, we’ve really been able to turn that around, where we’re very competitive and we’re bringing on a great caliber of people,” Titus said.

Under the previous contract, the starting pay was $38,646 for both a Firefighter/EMT and Firefighter/Paramedic, Titus said. The starting pay under the new contract is $45,215.84 for a Firefighter/EMT and $55,130.56 for a Firefighter/Paramedic, he said.

Ken Bryan, a recently hired Firefighter/EMT, comes to North Port with nine years of experience. He worked at a fire station in Brookline, Massachusetts, before moving to Florida.

“The amount of calls that we did in Brookline are very similar to a lot of phone calls, the volume of calls that we have here in North Port,” Bryan said. “Also, there’s a very good diversity of individuals here and different types of experience as well and I have a lot of interest in some of the certifications that you can receive here and the experience that you can get here as well.”

Titus said the new contract also provides firefighters with an incentive to pursue education. He said they will be able to progress through their pay scale by taking more classes.

“It’s a benefit to them because they can make more money, it’s a benefit for us as a city and a fire department because we have a better educated Firefighter/EMT or a Firefighter/Paramedic and they’re better prepared to do the job,” Titus said. “It just really sets us up for future success.”

Bryan said he looks forward to building his experience in North Port and is interested in getting his paramedic certification to become more involved in patient care.

“I’d love to be a model firefighter for North Port Fire and better serve the community in a professional manner and just be compassionate and give the people here a sense of family along with the fire service,” Bryan said.

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