Editor's Note: An abbreviated version of this article appears in the February 2010 issue of Firehouse Magazine, starting on page 60. Also read "Telling it Like it Is - Doing less with less. When will we learn?" and respond with your thoughts and concerns.
If there's any silver lining in the staffing crisis the fire service is facing currently, it's the fact that the federal government is preparing to open the spigot on $420 million in federal grants aimed at getting firefighters back to work.
The application deadline for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) SAFER grants was Jan. 15 and grant administrators have promised a quick turnaround on making awards.
The number of applicants for the latest round is not yet available, but in 2006, there were 1,728 applications; 1,503 in 2007; and 1,314 in 2008.
The rules for the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) Grants got a little more relaxed this year, which may have increased the number of applicants.
This year, previously laid off firefighters could be rehired under the grant. In past years, grants were designed only for new hires to increase staffing levels, not to preserve the status quo, or restore positions.
And there are thousands of positions from coast to coast begging for restoration.
From Glendale, Ariz., to Tulsa, Okla., to Philadelphia, Atlanta, and L.A., departments of all sizes and configurations have laid off firefighters, or are planning to reduce firefighter staffing levels.
Those who haven't been handed pink slips are likely facing departments with fewer colleagues, as many towns and cities are not replacing positions lost by normal attrition created by retirements and normal turnover.
Fire stations have been closed. Communities have faced rolling "brownouts," and talks of mergers are increasing. Some communities are even considering eliminating fire departments in favor of contracting fire protection to private business.
Those in the know believe future budgets for public safety look worse.
The bottom line is the safety of the general public - as well as firefighters and emergency personnel - have been compromised as a result of trying to balance budgets on the backs of public servants, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters, a labor organization representing more than 296,000 full-time career firefighters in every state of the Union and Canada.
"It's really overwhelming," summed up Lori Moore-Merrell, IAFF's assistant to the general president, who is also responsible for technical research and information for the organization.
As deadlines for layoffs in towns approach, unions have been forced to make compromises to keep staff. The money just isn't there to pay benefits and raises and sustain staffing levels, community leaders are telling union officials.
And some union locals are responding by taking pay cuts, deferring raises and handing back some benefits to help the communities they protect save the jobs of their brothers and sisters.
Still, cities big and small are providing early retirement programs and early out offerings, leaving vacancies unfilled and closing stations all to save money, Moore-Merrell said.
It's a trend that has her boss, Harold Schaitberger, general president of the IAFF, alarmed.
"When you reduce a [firefighter] off a rig, it's very difficult for a community to restore that position," Schaitberger said, noting that reductions in force for any department place a much larger burden on the firefighters remaining.
Schaitberger acknowledges the cutbacks in firefighter forces nationwide is troubling and the IAFF is doing everything it can to work with its members and political leaders to reverse the trend.
He said he and the IAFF staff have been working with government officials on the program.
While there are no guarantees, Schaitberger is optimistic that most of the laid off firefighters around the nation will be headed back to work quickly as the SAFER money is awarded.