Money can save minutes, and minutes save lives.
Murrieta's fire department recently won a hefty $300,000 federal grant that officials say will prove this credo true. The department plans to invest its windfall in a fleet of new, high-tech cardiac monitors designed to slash emergency treatment time for local patients.
The grant, awarded Jan. 13 by the Assistance to Firefighters Grant program, represents a new strategy city departments are employing to keep coffers full and ensure essential services aren't cut.
City administrators are asking departments to find money anywhere and everywhere they can—particularly in federal and state grant programs—to avoid bleeding cash from Murrieta's dwindling general fund.
"We have to be very creative about how we find this funding," city Mayor Douglas McAllister said. “(Grants have) been a very positive impact on our bottom line."
McAllister and the city’s four additional council members voted unanimously Tuesday night to accept the fire department grant and put an additional $75,000 in city matching funds toward paying for the updated heart monitors.
Tough times, creative solutions
Murrieta's firefighters sustained a $1-million budget cut this year compared to the previous year’s funding levels, forcing leaders to make tough decisions about where to allocate remaining money.
The deep cut left the department freewheeling, and officials looked for "any method that'll decrease costs while maintaining services," Fire Chief Matt Shobert said.
A team of department leaders came together to apply for the highly-competitive federal firefighter grant program administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Shobert said.
Murrieta secured the grant against steep odds through careful planning and coordination, he said, guaranteeing that essential life-saving tools could be upgraded without draining the department's cash reserves.
The set of new cardiac monitors, LifePak 15 systems priced at roughly $20,000-a-piece, will send information on a patient's heart rate and other vital signals from fire department equipment directly to local hospitals.
Communicating live data to hospitals as patients are transported for treatment will allow doctors to bypass the emergency room and drop the ailing men and women directly into surgery, Shobert said.
“We're eliminating a time consuming step,” Shobert said. “That is going to save lives."
The road ahead
Alan Long, a city council member and Anaheim fire battalion chief charged with managing Homeland Security grants for his department, said federal aid was increasingly hard to come by.
Those grants that remain were highly sought after, he said, and extremely hard to obtain.
“It’s a tedious process to write the grants,” Long said. And sometimes it’s even harder to ensure funds are used correctly—for example, some grants require fire departments to add new technology, not just upgrade their current stock, he said.
“Grants are a big opportunity for us to be a bit more aggressive,” Long said.
Shobert said his department was seeking more grant opportunities to help defray costs, including programs that would help boost staffing levels.
But problems still abound.
Shobert’s administrative offices have been staffed by less than half the employees who originally worked there, he said, and cutbacks have forced fire captains to take on community safety training duties once fulfilled by full-time employees.
According to Shobert, the redistribution of jobs was “just another example of how Murrieta fire is trying to maintain service levels in this crazy economy.”