It's a distinction the average resident might not notice when a Charleston firetruck rumbles past.

But to firefighters, an engine with four firefighters onboard is a matter of life and death. The more firefighters that arrive at a blaze in the first crucial minutes, the more likely they are to save property and lives.

Thanks to a $2.5 million federal grant announced Wednesday, every city fire truck could soon operate with four firefighters at all times.

"It's just huge," said Fire Chief Thomas Carr, who is expected to discuss the award at a news conference this morning. "It's the gold standard. It makes us so much more efficient."

In the wake of the Sofa Super Store blaze in June 2007, an expert panel that studied the Charleston Fire Department flagged staffing shortages as a major concern. In December, a national insurance rating group downgraded the department's coveted Class 1 ranking, in part because of staffing issues.

The grant, announced by U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., will allow the department to hire 24 firefighters. That's in addition to 12 firefighters the city already budgeted to hire this year.

Carr said he hopes to have all the new employees hired, trained and assigned to stations by September. The department currently has four firefighters assigned to every truck at its outlying stations, but allowing for vacation and sick days has prevented that from happening across the entire city.

Carr said the grant, which requires some city matching funds, demonstrates the city's support for the fire department in bad economic times.

Fire departments in other parts of the country have been forced to decline federal grant awards because they couldn't get their city or county governments to pony up a match, Carr said.

Budget cuts in some cities have forced fire stations to temporarily shut down. The Atlanta Fire Department made national headlines this week after 27 firefighters called in sick on Super Bowl Sunday, forcing the closure of five city fire stations. Some said the Atlanta firefighters simply wanted to watch the football game, but fire union leaders claimed the shutdowns were a symptom of staffing cuts.

Carr said he didn't get everything he requested in his first budget as the city's fire chief. But given the state of the economy, he said he can live with cuts in training and travel.