The Fire Grant Program: The Fight's Never Over

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program (AFG) has provided fire departments and fire service affiliate organizations with more than $5 billion since the program began. This funding has been used to improve the readiness of the American fire service in a variety of ways (staffing, equipment, training, etc.) and to prevent fires and other life-threatening emergencies through coordinated prevention and public education efforts at the national, state and local levels. Firefighter safety programs and important fire service research projects have also benefited from these fire grants. Improved readiness for day-to-day operations directly corresponds to improved readiness to respond to acts of terrorism and natural disasters. The people of the United States are better protected and the nation's fire service is more prepared to operate effectively and safely because of funding received through the FIRE and SAFER grants.

The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, issued a report on Sept. 23, 2009. The foundation's logo boldly professes that the organization provides "Leadership For America." At the bottom of the cover page of the report (right below its logo) there is a disclaimer that says, verbatim, "Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of The Heritage Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before Congress." It should be noted that this report was issued at the same time that the House Science and Technology Committee was considering the Fire Grants Reauthorization Act and Congress was approving the fiscal year 2010 Homeland Security Appropriations Act, which funds both the FIRE and SAFER grants. The essence of The Heritage Foundation's report is that the Fire Grants Program has failed because civilian fire deaths and injuries, and firefighter line-of-duty deaths and injuries, have not been reduced in the United States during the life of this program.

It's not clear whether the data used in the analysis are accurate, nor is it clear whether the assumptions the foundation makes in its report are valid. In any case, the report is a myopic analysis focusing on only one outcome measure (although an important one) — total casualties — and as a result, determines that the program is ineffective and that Congress should eliminate funding for the Fire Grants Program (FIRE and SAFER). The report represents a very narrow review of the program, and one has to admit that the timing of its release is more than just suspect.

The reality is that the Fire Grants Program has many goals besides just the one addressed by The Heritage Foundation, and it has been formally evaluated at least two times since 2003 by independent agencies that reviewed various aspects of the administration and effectiveness of the process and the grants themselves:

  • On Jan. 31, 2003, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Executive Potential Program Team Six published "Survey, Assessment and Recommendations for the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program." The report states in part that the goal was to provide a comprehensive evaluation of the program by providing both qualitative and quantitative measures that reflect the positive impacts of these funds. The finding clearly indicates that the grant program is "highly effective in improving the readiness and capabilities of firefighters across the nation."
  • This year, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released a report assessing the effectiveness of the Fire Grants Program for fiscal year 2008. As a result of this OMB evaluation, the Fire Grants Program was one of only 10 programs in the DHS to receive an "Effective" rating and was one of only two programs in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to receive an "Effective" rating. It's important to note that the total weighted score issues by OMB for the Fire Grants Program was 95%. Only one program in DHS received a higher score from OMB, and that was 96% for a Secret Service program.

Bottom line, the Fire Grants Program has been independently rated as one of the most effective federal programs, and with all that's been accomplished through this important funding since it was established, neither FIRE nor SAFER have ever been funded to their authorized levels. One can't help but wonder what could have been accomplished if these programs were fully funded. Even with the positive evaluations the programs have received, FEMA is working to improve the availability of pertinent data, as well as better evaluate and document the outcomes achieved (past, present and future) as a result of these grants.

Congress and the administration understand the full purpose of these grants — and we should let them know how much we appreciate their support. We must never take this funding for granted and we must be willing to fight to make sure they remain in place for the benefit of the nation and the fire service in the future.

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.