In the October 6, 2006, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) press release titled "America's Firefighters to Receive $485 Million in Grants" it was indicated that through their Fiscal Year 2006 Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG), a total of $485 million will be awarded to nearly 5,000 fire-related organizations nationwide. It was also mentioned that "Since 2001, the AFG has provided $2.4 billion in grants to fire departments and first responder organizations for response equipment, personal protective equipment, vehicles, and fire prevention activities. DHS received more than 18,000 applications for nearly $2.5 billion in grant requests in FY 2006."
Needless to say continuation of the federal fire grants is indeed great news for us in the fire service. I believe that it is of utmost importance for us to realize that many of our brightest, determined, and most dedicated fire service leaders, fought tirelessly for very many years, to establish the federal fire grant program. And their efforts should be applauded even more, once we recognize that, year after year, they still step up to the plate for us, and fend off the very many opponents that seek elimination of the federal fire grant program. Although federal fire grants are a far cry from the systematic sustained funding that the fire service needs to improve our service delivery, we still definitely need this continued governmental support to be able to better protect our local communities.
There is also a world of information in these few simple sentences in the press release that I believe deserve our serious attention and require further analysis. With the very first glance, this shows that the fire service in our country is so desperately under-resourced at the local levels that we need to rely so heavily on the federal government subsidies to provide for the sorely needed local resources.
Last year alone, we requested $2.5 billion which was a tad more than the total of $2.4 billion that we received for all of the previous years since 2001 combined. Also, this year's $485 million grant will only provide for about 20% of the total $2.5 billion we have requested in our fire grant applications. And only 5,000 fire-related organizations out of the total of 18,000 fire grant applicants (only about 28%) would be receiving this year's fire grants.
But, rather than focusing on the dim view, let's view this positively, and look at it from the good old fashion American entrepreneurial point of view and find opportunities that could benefit us. I believe that through their grants, federal government has an excellent opportunity to be the impetus for change and better help the fire service in the long-run.
The federal government has an opportunity to take an in-depth look at the short-comings in the local governments' planning, service delivery, funding mechanisms, and their emergency response resource management; and through their fire grants, the federal government can indirectly cause positive changes and improvements in the long-run. After all, the local governments tend to listen to the federal government a tad more attentively. More than they would to the emergency response resource planning and funding requests of their own fire chiefs.
This of course, is by no means a new concept. And using the federal grants to hold the local governments accountable for implementing improvements, is what the federal government has done quite well through many of their national agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Federal Highway Administration (FHA), and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), just to name a few.
So if it works well for others, then why not for us? We should first realize though, that not only is change not bad, it is absolutely necessary for us. It is obvious from the above mentioned statistics that the fire service is starved for resources and it's chronically deprived of essential resources at the local level. Thus changing that deficiency could only be good.
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It is said, if you really want to help, then "don't give them a fish, but teach them how to fish". Yet, we in the fire service may have our eyes on the federal fire grants and hope that the fish keeps on coming year after year. But, if history has anything to teach us, unfortunately sooner or later this well could also gradually run dry. And then what?
Just like the rest of you, I want my federal government to provide their heroes with the much deserved and sorely needed resources. I am in complete agreement with the statement in that press release that "Firefighters are among those on the front lines of our homeland security. This program gets critically important resources for equipment and training to America's first responders and supports their continued service to our country." But, I also expect the federal government to take us fishing and teach us how to fish; so that we can learn to better provide for our needs at the local level. That way, if or when the next drought comes, we are better prepared.
I believe that the federal government should assist, yet take appropriate measures, to hold local governments accountable for identifying their local communities' risks, prepare a comprehensive risk management plan, and provide adequate resources to their local fire departments to mitigate those risks.
This is not a new concept at all. It has its roots in the well-known America Burning report, released back in 1973. The 1973 America Burning report talked about the concept of the "Fire Loss Management Plan" and explains:
"Every system has advantages and disadvantages. No one is motivated to change a system or pattern of behavior when the advantages seem to lie with the status quo and the disadvantages with the contemplated change. Change toward fire loss management will be attractive only if the rewards of the proposed practices and the penalties of existing practices are seen to outweigh the rewards for existing practices and the penalties associated with change. If the opposite holds true, then there will be little impetus to move in the direction of loss management. One of the jobs of the U.S. Fire Administration will be to persuade local governments that the rewards lie in a change toward fire loss management, penalties in the status quo... The Commission recommends that the proposed United States Fire Administration provide grants to local fire jurisdictions for developing master plans for fire protection. Further, the proposed U.S. Fire Administration should provide technical advice and qualified personnel to local fire jurisdictions to help them develop master plans."
Then the question is, why not use our current federal fire grant mechanism to implement the "Fire Loss Management Plan" that was first talked about back in 1973? What better way for the federal government to be the impetus for change at the local level, than to use the current federal fire grants that are subsidizing the short-comings of the local government?
Your local bank won't even lend you a small business loan without a detailed business plan. Then, strictly from a business point of view, why shouldn't the federal government expect a business plan of sort, identifying the community's risk assessment, detailed planning, and enhanced funding mechanism and service delivery, from all the local governments filing for the federal fire grant? Wouldn't a detailed "Fire Loss Management Plan" included with the applicants' federal fire grant applications, be indicative of the local governments' level of commitment, and an appropriate accountability measure for the federal government?
Undoubtedly, the 1973 America Burning report was a major step forward for the fire service to address the fire problem in our country. The America Burning report led to the Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974, and to the establishment of the United States Fire Administration.
The 1987 America Burning Revisited report, published 20 years ago, indicated that the concept of "Fire Loss Management Plan" never materialized, because "the legislation (PL 93-498) did not provide for grants to fire departments for master planning." And even more disappointing, is the statement in the America Burning Recommissioned, 2000 report titled "America at Risk", indicating "more than one-third of the America Burning's recommendations have not been implemented and more than half were only partially implemented. During the intervening 28 years there was no systematic effort to track the implementation of these recommendations." They say history is a good teacher. But then, based on our own report cards, we could not really brag about being a good student, could we?
Our mission is quite simple, protecting lives and preventing loss. Imagine if we set goals to aim for, and then obtain solid national statistical data that attest to the success of the federal fire grants in assisting us in accomplishing our general mission. Clear goals and statistical objectives such as, in the next five years we are striving for doubling the number of homes with residential fire sprinklers from the current 2% to 4%; reducing the current 3,925 annual civilian fire fatalities by, for example, 5%; reducing the current 87 annual firefighter fatalities by, for example, 25%; decreasing the current total annual fire property loss of $14.5 billion by, for example, 5%. We could indeed use such statistics to easily silence any critiques of us receiving the federal fire grants, couldn't we?
Such statistics would prove that the federal fire grant program has indeed been a major success. It would prove that annually, national savings from the decrease of the total fire property loss alone would be more than the annual cost of the federal fire grant programs. Do the math, and you will see that even a mere 5% reduction in our current annual total fire property loss of $14.5 billion, would be $725 million, which is more than the $485 million currently allocated for the federal fire grants.
That would be a good rate of return on the federal fire grants investment, won't you say? What better way to insure the continuity of the federal fire grants program, than to have such statistics highlighting our accomplishments, proving that the program is paying for itself? What better way to address the fire problem in our country than to have such clear, well established, and measurable objectives?
We need a road map and a game plan of sort to get there though. And I believe that is how the "Fire Loss Management Plan" could help us at the national level. Our own history in the fire service provides us with a wealth of knowledge that we must use it to address our country's current fire problem. In 1973, the Commission was tasked to identify "how should responsibilities for reducing fire losses be distributed among Federal, State and local governments?" And in their America Burning report, they believed that the "Fire Loss Management Plan" could be that impetus for change to address the country's fire problem.
Back in 1973, they had the vision, but not the money to implement those positive changes. The important question to answer is, now that we have the money in the form of the current federal fire grants, do we have the vision and the will to be the impetus for change?
Azarang (Ozzie) Mirkhah, Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is the Fire Protection Engineer (FPE) for the City of Las Vegas Department of Fire & Rescue. His responsibilities include reviewing all building fire and life safety system designs and submittals to insure compliance with the federal, state and local fire and life safety codes and standards. Mr. Mirkhah is also involved in the development of fire & life safety codes and standards for the city.
Mr. Mirkhah is a registered professional engineer with more than 25 years of work experience in the field of fire protection engineering. Mr. Mirkhah joined the Las Vegas Fire & Rescue (LVF&R) more than 12 years ago. Prior to that Mr. Mirkhah worked as a consultant designing fire protection systems for some of the most internationally recognized fire protection consulting firms.
Mr. Mirkhah holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering (BSME), and a Masters degree in Public Administration (MPA). Mr. Mirkhah is a 1999 graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Mr. Mirkhah is a Certified Building Official, Certified Fire Inspector, Certified Mechanical Inspector, and Certified Plans Examiner through the International Code Council (ICC).
Mr. Mirkhah is a member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and serves on the national NFPA 13 Technical Committee for Sprinkler System Discharge Design Criteria. Mr. Mirkhah is a member of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) a member of the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE) - USA Branch. Mr. Mirkhah is also a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). You can contact Mr. Mirkhah at: firstname.lastname@example.org. To view all of Ozzie's articles on Firehouse.com, please click here.