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There is a lot to report this month from Capitol Hill on three bills of vital interest to the fire-rescue service: the FIRE Act grant program, the SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) Act to hire more firefighters and the Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act, which would provide a tax break to property owners who install sprinklers. As is always the case when trying to get legislation through Congress, there have to be compromises and you don't get everything you wanted exactly the way you wanted it. But victories are better than defeats and the fire organizations and their congressional supporters deserve credit for doing yeoman's work to make some positive things happen.
The good news is that Congress has passed and President Bush has signed an appropriation bill that funds the FIRE Act program at $750 million to provide matching grants to local fire departments for equipment, apparatus and training in the 2004 fiscal year. The bad news is that within the Department of Homeland Security, the program has been transferred from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) to the Office for Domestic Preparedness (ODP) - which the fire service opposed.
However, Congress did build a fence around the FIRE Act by stipulating that USFA has to be consulted and that the program will be administered as it has been in the past. This means grants will continue to go directly to the fire departments without having to pass through state governments as other Homeland Security assistance is required to do. And, administrative costs must be held to 5% instead of the 15% to 25% that ODP normally takes out of its programs. FIRE Act has been called one of the most successful federal aid programs because of the fair and efficient way USFA has administered the grant process and held down costs.
What will happen after next year is anybody's guess. We've heard that Homeland Security wants to move ODP and all of the aid to first-responders to a new Office for State and Local Coordination. They never liked the idea of separating ODP from the same directorate that includes USFA and FEMA. That was a power play some influential senators and clever staff members pulled off when the Department of Homeland Security was created. It was aimed at maintaining their oversight control and to please police organizations who wanted ODP to handle all the money for first responders. Thus far, it has been impossible to change.
For now, the important thing is that there will be a 2004 FIRE Act program and the grants will go directly to local fire departments with no state involvement.
On another front, the SAFER Act has come out of a House-Senate conference committee with an authorization of $7 billion over seven years to assist the cities in hiring 75,000 career firefighters. The bill calls for a sliding scale in which federal funds would pay 90% of the first-year salaries, 50% by the third year, with the cities taking over the full amount in the fifth year. It also provides funds for the recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters. The conference committee's recommendation is a big increase over the $3 billion for three years that was proposed by the Senate.
It's a huge step forward, but it's too soon to celebrate. The bill still has to be voted on by the full House and Senate and "authorization" is not the same as "appropriation" - which is what really counts. Many programs are authorized and then fail to get the money when Congress and the administration engage in the trench warfare that goes with passing the federal budget. That's when the fate and size of the SAFER Act will be determined. A veteran congressional lobbyist cautions that SAFER is a big-spending program and adds: "It's one thing to authorize a program like this; it's another thing to appropriate the money."
Finally, the Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act is in the process of being "scored" by the House Ways and Means committee and the Senate Finance committee. This is where they estimate the impact a tax bill will have on the federal budget. The vital question is whether it will lose or gain revenue or be neutral. The act is aimed at making it easier for property owners to install sprinklers by allowing them to depreciate the cost on their federal tax returns over a period of 51/2 years. Under current tax laws, it takes 27 years to amortize the cost of residential sprinklers and 39 years for commercial or industrial systems.
It's believed that the shorter depreciation schedule, when combined with lower insurance rates, will be a financial incentive to encourage property owners to install sprinklers. It also will help local jurisdictions that are trying to pass sprinkler laws. The cost always is a major obstacle to overcome when fire departments are opposed by developers, builders and property owners who don't want to spend money on sprinklers. If the Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act can come close to being scored as "revenue neutral," it has a chance to make it through Congress and would be a tremendous breakthrough in the battle to save lives by preventing fatal fires.
A lot of people - fire service organizations, their lobbyists on Capitol Hill, members of Congress and their staffs - have worked hard to pass these bills. Most importantly, they've worked together and, even if the results are not perfect, they deserve our praise and our thanks.
Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.