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Suffolk Fire and Rescue now has funding to hire 18 additional personnel to the department.

The new positions, funded by FEMA’s Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant program, will help fill a new firehouse and offset upcoming retirements.

“Not only do we have these retirement issues that are hitting us, but we have the need of (Suffolk’s) growth,” Fire Chief Michael Barakey said.

The department wants to fill 30 to 50 slots for new hires this year, but they’re drawing from the same pool as other services in Hampton Roads. Barakey said Suffolk Fire and Rescue is working on making their employment benefits more attractive, but that only goes so far.

“It takes a very unique person that wants to enter our service that has long hours, a lot of time away from home, as well as moderate pay,” Barakey said.

Barakey said there was an explosion of department numbers in the 1980s and ‘90s and now those employees are reaching retirement age.

Plus Suffolk, which UVA’s Weldon Cooper Center said grew 5.1% between 2020 and 2022, shows few signs of slowing.

“We're still behind the curve. And that's why we're seeking additional funding for personnel to keep pace with that,” Assistant Fire Chief David Harrell said.

Harrell has been with the department for 27 years. When he arrived in 1996, there were around 80 staff — that’s more than tripled, but with a new station in the works, it won’t be enough.

The department broke ground in August on its tenth firehouse. It’s off Hampton Roads Parkway in northern Suffolk, an area where Barakey said they’ve seen an increase in calls. The station means it will take 88 people to be fully staffed across the city.

The department’s projections say they’ll hit an all-time high of 20,000 emergency calls this year. The new staff will take around 12 months to complete academy training, which starts in July. They’ll be ready to go out on calls starting in mid-2025.