GARDINER — A divided City Council has opted not to pursue applying for a grant this year that would have paid the salaries of new firefighters for two years.

But as demands on the Fire Department continue to increase, the city’s fire chief said he might submit the request again.

“I can see the call volumes going up,” said Al Nelson, who has been chief in Gardiner for about a year and half. “I would like to have had things in place before becoming reactionary.”

On Wednesday, he outlined to the council his request for seven additional firefighters to expand the coverage of his staff of 15. Under the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grant, he was seeking funding for four additional firefighter/paramedics this year and three additional firefighters next year.

The SAFER grant, funded through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, pays for salary and benefits for two years. While the program requires no matching funds from the city, the apparent drawback of the program is that to keep the firefighters on the staff, the city must come up with the money to pay for salary and benefits when the grant expires.

If Gardiner were successful in securing the grant, keeping those firefighters on staff would cost the city about $137,000 after the first grant expires and about $240,000 after they both expire. By Nelson’s calculations, that would raise taxes by about $103 for an average household.

The Fire Department now staffs three shifts a day with four firefighter/paramedics. Nelson said he would like to staff each shift with six.

“When we show up on the scene and we have only four people, it leaves us in a position where it’s difficult to get firefighting operations completed the way they should be,” Nelson said.

The deadline for the grant is March 25, and the relatively short time to consider the obligation rankled some city councilors.

“I am not sure (Nelson) would have asked for that staff if this grant weren’t available,” at-large Councilor Jonathan Ault said Thursday. “I don’t necessarily see the need for the personnel.”

Ault noted no complaints from the partner communities who are served by the Gardiner ambulance service have been aired, and he said he believes the department is doing a good job.

“We’re a lean city, and we’re working in lean times,” Ault said.

Nelson developed a proposal to pursue the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grant at the request of some city councilors who learned about the grant last year from consultants hired to review the level of services Gardiner offers its residents.

MRI Resources suggested seeking the grant to add volunteer firefighters to the city’s full-time Fire Department. The grant is also available to communities that need help meeting national standards with a full-time department.

In pulling together the data for his presentation to city elected officials, Nelson found that overall, the volume of calls to his agency is increasing. Part of the rise is because of the return of two towns to the city’s ambulance service, but volume is up overall.

“What makes me nervous,” Nelson told city councilors, “is when no one is available to take a call.”

Nelson has tracked the data, and in 2015, the station was left with no coverage 468 times. That’s nearly double the frequency of four years ago, when it was uncovered 252 times.

At the same time, the city has automatic aid and mutual aid agreements in the region that provide backup. Under automatic aid, the Augusta and Togus fire departments respond automatically to certain calls. Under mutual aid, firefighters from towns such as Richmond, Dresden and Randolph, among others, respond when requested.

Gardiner is a city of about 5,800 people in 16 1/2 square miles, but thanks to automatic and mutual aid agreements as well as ambulance contracts, the Fire Department serves a population of more than 26,000 across a little more than 200 square miles.

“The chief will continue to monitor the number of calls and the level of response,” Gardiner City Manager Scott Morelli said. “His duty is to point out when he feels there are deficiencies or an area he feels we need to become proactive with. He’ll bring it forward.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ