The AFG Program: There's Work to Do Again

The Obama Administration recently released its fiscal year 2010 budget, and as in the past, the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) Program is funded nowhere near the level of need. The Administration proposed only $170 million for the FIRE Act grants — a 70% reduction from fiscal year 2009. On a positive note, the Administration seeks to double the funding for SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grants at $420 million. These two figures combined amount to $590 million compared to the $775 million total appropriation in fiscal year 2009, an overall reduction of $185 million in total AFG Program funding. This means that members throughout the fire service, as well as other stakeholders, have some very important and difficult work to do again, but they have been in this situation before and should be up to the challenge.

Why It's Important

It's important to remember that the Administration's proposed budget is just that, a proposal. In fact, the previous Administration's fiscal year 2009 budget proposal for the AFG Program was only $300 million — $0 for SAFER and $300 million for FIRE), yet through a lot of effort on the part of the fire service and support from Congress, the final fiscal year 2009 appropriation for the AFG Program was $775 million. The Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI), along with 10 other fire service organizations, sent a letter on May 22, 2009, to the chairmen and ranking members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security and to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security who are working on the fiscal year 2010 AFG appropriation. The letter acknowledged that our nation is in a very difficult economic situation, and that it's affecting our fire departments significantly. In that light, the organizations requested that SAFER be funded at $420 million and FIRE be funded at $565 million for fiscal year 2010.

This fire service organizations' proposal to the appropriators was important for several reasons. First, it acknowledged and was respectful of the current national economic crisis, and therefore, didn't request AFG funding at the program's authorized level, which combined (SAFER and FIRE) totals approximately $2 billion.

Second, it supported the Administration's significant increase in funding for SAFER ($420 million), which addresses very important needs. Many fire departments have performed with dangerously low levels of staffing on fire companies for several years. Decisions that result in understaffing of fire companies and less-than-efficient deployment models, whether for economic or other reasons, compromise public safety and firefighter safety. This increase in SAFER would provide some financial relief to fire departments and could slow the downward staffing and deployment spiral they face.

Finally, it requested maintaining the fiscal year 2009 level of funding for FIRE. Whether the money is used for equipment, apparatus, safety or training, the FIRE grants continue to address unmet emergency response needs of the nation's fire departments.

In addition to these areas, the critical fire prevention and public fire and life- safety education funding provided through the FIRE grants would be maintained at fiscal year 2009 levels. FIRE grants are important to overall public safety and firefighter safety, and the areas of need that have been supplemented by FIRE grant funding have recently taken crippling budget hits at the local level. Funding FIRE at anything less than the fiscal year 2009 level ($575 million) would harm the program's effectiveness.

The word on Capitol Hill is that the May 22 proposal received a less-than-positive reception, which could result in some fire service organizations modifying their original positions on fiscal year 2010 AFG funding levels. Even so, as the appropriations process continues through the House and Senate, there could still be opportunities to accomplish the goal of $420 million for SAFER and $565 million for FIRE, though it will probably be very difficult to achieve. The members of the Fire Services Caucus in Congress has significant influence in the House and Senate and they, along with other members, could provide advocacy as the AFG Program moves through the authorization and appropriation processes. In the recent past, congressional staff and the Washington, DC, media have lauded the fire service for its ability to garner grass-roots support among its members to achieve goals that can have widespread impact. This capability is probably more important now, in these economic times, than it's been in several years.

One significant way to accomplish the desired results is for fire service members and stakeholders to contact their members of the House of Representatives and Senate in the near future to share with them the critical importance of the AFG Program (SAFER and FIRE) to local fire departments and public safety in their own states. Hearing directly from their constituents back home can carry a lot of weight and influence their decisions, including the final fiscal year 2010 AFG appropriation. It could also be helpful to communicate these concerns to the offices of the chairmen and ranking members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security and the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security who are currently working on the appropriation.

There's Time to Act

One could only hope that these individual and collective congressional contacts could result in an outcome that is consistent with the funding levels the fire service originally proposed to appropriators ($420 million for SAFER and $565 million for FIRE). This total, when combined with the $210 million the fire service has been allocated for fire station construction in the economic stimulus bill, would be quite an achievement.

Is this an incredibly difficult outcome to achieve? Yes, but not an impossible one. The AFG Program is worth using whatever influence the fire service has to maintain SAFER and FIRE funding at the highest levels possible so they both are as effective as possible.

DENNIS COMPTON, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a well-known speaker and the author of several books, including the When in Doubt, Lead series. He is also co-editor of the current edition of the ICMA textbook Managing Fire and Rescue Services. Compton was the fire chief in Mesa, AZ, for five years and assistant fire chief in Phoenix, AZ, where he served for 27 years. Compton is the past chair of the Executive Board of the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) and past chair of the Congressional Fire Services Institute's National Advisory Committee. He is also chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Board of Directors and the chairman of the Home Safety Council Board of Directors.