Eagan will soon receive a federal grant of almost $900,000 to add four full-time firefighters and one fire captain for the next two years, helping the city bridge a gap in its volunteer force.

The City Council on Tuesday agreed to accept an $871,000 Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant for the full-time positions. SAFER is a federal program that funds fire departments and volunteer firefighter organizations to help them increase or maintain the number of trained responders. The program is expected to distribute about $340 million nationwide in the coming year.

Eagan's fire department has about 100 paid-on-call volunteers. "Like most volunteer fire departments across the nation, we're facing a staffing challenge," Fire Chief Mike Scott told the council at a recent work session.

Scott said it has become increasingly difficult to get volunteer firefighters for weekdays, typically the busiest time for responding to calls. About 56 percent of the department's calls come during weekdays, when only 20 percent of the volunteers are available.

The new full-time firefighters would work weekdays and would continue to be augmented by volunteers. "Our commitment is to maintain a voluntary department. We're not trying to go away from that," Scott said.

The full-time staff would report to the Fire Safety Center each morning for their shift and would then be out working their assigned areas. In addition to being available to respond to calls, the new firefighters also would be trained as fire inspectors so they could assist Eagan's one inspector. Other nonemergency duties would include helping with fire prevention and community outreach programs and with maintaining the department's stations and equipment.

"Our job should be to lower [fire] risk, not just respond to calls," Scott said.

The grant will pay all of the newly hired employees' wages and benefits. The cost per year for the four firefighters is expected to be about $325,000, and for the captain about $88,000, according to city documents. Under terms of the grant, the city has until Feb. 27 to get the new staff on board.

The grant doesn't require the city to continue to staff the positions after the two-year period. "But I don't see a bunch of volunteers all of a sudden being available," Scott said. The city plans to measure whether the added positions result in improved response times.

Council members said the grant will buy time for the city as it continues to deal with the ongoing challenge of staffing the department.

"The approach here is for at least two years to try to figure out how we would perform with somebody else's money," said Mayor Mike Maguire.

Council member Paul Bakken agreed, adding that a transition to a fire department that relies less on volunteers is probable in the future.

SAFER grants are used mostly to prevent layoffs in fire departments or to rehire firefighters that have been laid off. Eagan's request of new positions was among the highest-ranked by the program's administrators.