The Oakland Fire Department is pushing back against local advocates' plans to reduce the width of streets. Credit: Amir Aziz

The Oakland Fire Department is receiving a major federal grant that will help grow the chronically understaffed department, and possibly alleviate some of the budget pressures the city is facing.  

Oakland Fire Chief Reginald Freeman announced Tuesday that OFD will receive nearly $27.4 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant, or “SAFER”, will cover the cost of hiring 35 new firefighters.

The grant amount is significantly higher than some of OFD’s previous awards. For perspective, the department in 2018 received a $4.2 million grant to pay for the salaries and benefits for firefighters. Unlike the previous grant, there is no cost match requirement for the city. The SAFER program has awarded $5.2 billion to fire departments across the country since 2005.

Freeman, who is retiring from the department in June, said winning the SAFER grant was a “phenomenal feat” for the department.

“Considering the current budgetary challenges Oakland is grappling with, this award will give us some much-needed fiscal relief over the next three years as we continue working to get our staffing capacity to appropriate levels,” Freeman said in a statement.

OFD faces significant cuts in Mayor Sheng Thao’s proposed $4.2 billion budget for 2023-2025. Thao wants to postpone the rollout of a 25th fire engine and brownout an existing engine on a rotating basis, which requires freezing 38 currently unfilled firefighter positions. Thao said these measures are necessary to balance the city’s historic $360 million budget deficit.

OFD spokesperson Michael Hunt said OFD is in discussions with the Mayor’s Office about how the SAFER grant could potentially offset planned cuts to the department.

“The budget office is currently going through the technical details of this award,” Hunt said. “While the impact will ultimately be very positive, there are still details to be worked out about the timelines for how this money will be utilized and its impact on the current budget proposal.”

Thao spokesperson Pati Navalta said she didn’t have additional information at this time. 

The department graduated a 32-person lateral fire academy on May 5, and the department expects to have 40 new recruits starting this fall.

“We still remain understaffed in the grand scheme of things, but the chief for the last two years has been laser-focused on ensuring we have the necessary staffing, resources, and equipment to fulfill the mission of the department,” Hunt told The Oaklandside.

A major concern for OFD personnel is overreliance on overtime. OFD currently employs 738 personnel, including 534 sworn firefighters. The department requires a minimum of 411 staff to cover three different shifts. Injuries, vacations, trainings and other issues contribute to chronic staffing shortages in OFD. According to the most recent available staffing report, OFD’s vacancy rate is over 22.5%.

As a result, OFD must use overtime to meet its minimum staffing numbers every shift. In the first two quarters of fiscal year 2022-2023, OFD was budgeted for a little over $13 million in overtime, but ended up using over $16.4 million, according to a recent staff report.

Zac Unger, president of the Oakland firefighters union, International Association of Fire Fighters Local 55, said the SAFER grant is welcome relief for his members.

“We’re in a staffing crisis right now—our members are critically overworked,” Unger told The Oaklandside. “This will allow us to get some relief and not rely on mandatory overtime to fill our ranks.”  

Eli Wolfe reports on City Hall for The Oaklandside. He was previously a senior reporter for San José Spotlight, where he had a beat covering Santa Clara County’s government and transportation. He also worked as an investigative reporter for the Pasadena-based newsroom FairWarning, where he covered labor, consumer protection and transportation issues. He started his journalism career as a freelancer based out of Berkeley. Eli’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic,, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. Eli graduated from UC Santa Cruz and grew up in San Francisco.