Members of the Oversight Committees in the House of Representatives and the Senate need a fire watch on the activities of the Office of Domestic Preparedness (ODP) in the Department of Homeland Security. The move of the highly successful Fire Grant Program from the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) to the newly created ?one stop shop for grants? is a significant defeat for America?s Domestic Defenders.
Make no mistake about it; fire service groups fought a battle to keep the program in the agency (USFA) that is managed by firefighters and is about what we do. We lost the battle. Losing in Washington is not pleasant.
Fire Service leadership recognized that a program of the size of the Fire Grants could easily be overshadowed in the multi-billon dollar money dispensing machine for homeland security. Before the ship went down and the Fire Grants were moved, organizations sought to get assurances in the form of testimony during Senate Confirmation Hearings for the newly appointed Director of ODP and in the report language from the Congressional Conference Committee that approved the move.
As we lick our wounds, firefighters need to focus on the promises that were made by the President?s appointee Ms. Suzanne Mencer who if confirmed, will head the ODP. Ms Mencer said in part during her confirmation hearing ?I believe that the Office for Domestic Preparedness will always strive to provide assistance to our nation?s emergency response community in the most efficient and effective manner. It is also my understanding that preliminary planning between ODP and FEMA has concluded the FIRE Act should be administered as it has in the past. If I am confirmed by the Senate, I will make every effort to ensure that ODP continues to work effectively with our nation?s emergency responders.?
There are also several positive provisions in the Congressional Conference Committee Report that sent the program to its new home. In varying forms both the testimony and the report language seem to indicate support for a workable Fire Grant program.
The rationale for this move is couched in the desire of the Administration and Congress to have a clearinghouse for federal homeland security and first responder grants so there is coordination within the states. They also want to avoid duplication. Most fire service people agree that when it comes to homeland security there must be some level of coordination.
Fire Grants are a different story. This program provides basic needs to the fire departments by awarding competitive grants directly to the department not state government. Fire departments receiving a grant have an improved opportunity to provide an acceptable level of fire protection for their communities. Because homeland security and fire grants are so vastly different, fire service groups worked hard to keep them separate.
Since we lost the battle, our focus must shift to monitoring very closely how ODP handles the Fire Grant Program. One part of the Fire Grant program that has received almost no notice is the special fire prevention grants that here before were awarded based on merit by the United States Fire Administrator. That program is funded by statue at 5% of the total amount of Fire Act funds. This year that means there may well be $37 million available in the program. Will ODP allow the Fire Administrator to distribute this money? Don?t hold your breath.
Another concern is the annual Criteria Meeting facilitated by the USFA and staffed by experts from the major fire service groups. This meeting is essential because fire service people recommend ground rules to the Fire Administrator for the current year by reviewing the law and studying how the program worked in the previous cycle.
An additional consideration is the call in Help Desk that is so crucial during the application process. Will fire service people be on the other end of the line to answer a department?s question or will someone who doesn?t know a pike pole from a spanner wrench answer the phone?
Fire Service folks should ask that the Committees in Congress who have the duty to oversee the Department of Homeland Security put a vigilant ?fire watch? on the grant process. The Administration, who proposed this change in the first place, also should be held accountable if things go south.
Fire Service folks are a fair-minded group of people. We should give ODP every opportunity to make OUR program work. However if there is any indication that the Fire Grants are being fragmented or absorbed in to another a state and local grant program the ?fire watch? should strike a full box alarm. The nation?s fire service must then respond to save the program.