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After years of fighting an uphill battle, the fire-rescue service finally has a federal program that will provide direct financial aid to the nation's fire departments. Now the challenge is to make it work by showing Congress how local fire departments will make good use of the money to improve fire protection for their citizens and the safety of their firefighters.
Faced with a Sept. 30 deadline to spend the $100 million appropriated for this fiscal year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) are working with the major fire organizations to get the program rolling as fast as possible. Their goal is to start receiving applications for matching grants by late spring, make the awards by mid-summer and have all the funds distributed by early fall.
The grant program was created by "Title XVII - Assistance to Firefighters," which passed as a substitute for the original FIRE Act that proposed spending $5 billion over a period of five years. Title XVII is a much smaller program that authorizes matching grants of $100 million for the current fiscal year and $300 million for next year. Fire departments serving a population under 50,000 have to match 10% of the money they request; those over 50,000 have to come up with 30% to qualify for a grant.
The grant money must be divided between the career and volunteer services based on the percentage of U.S. population each protects. According to statistics from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), approximately 43% will go to all-career departments and 57% to all-volunteer or combination departments. The act also earmarks 5% of the funds for community organizations involved in fire prevention and fire safety activities.
Departments applying for grants must present a specific project the money will be used for and show financial need. They also have to submit a cost-benefit analysis and agree to provide information to the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS). Title XVII lists 24 fire-related categories that are eligible for grants, but only 25% of the funds can be spent to buy apparatus and no grant can exceed $750,000.
At a meeting between the fire organizations and FEMA/USFA officials, it was agreed that only six of the Title XVII categories would be considered for grants in this first year. The idea is to make maximum use of the money that's available and get it out to a lot of departments for projects that will quickly produce tangible results. Hopefully, that will convince Congress to appropriate the full $300 million that has been authorized for next year.
A fire department can apply for grants in no more than two of the following categories:
- Firefighter training.
- Fitness and wellness programs.
- Purchase of fire apparatus.
- Purchase of firefighting equipment (including communications).
- Purchase of protective clothing and equipment.
- Fire prevention programs.
The hiring of more career firefighters and the recruitment and retention of volunteers - two of the most serious problems listed in Title XVII - will NOT be covered by this year's grants. The reason: both are projects that require time and a lot of money to have an impact. Everyone at the meeting agreed that it made sense to wait until next year, when more money will be available.
Ken Burris, the USFA's chief operating officer, is setting up an office and small staff at FEMA headquarters to handle the grant applications and administer the program. Fire service experts will work with them to establish the criteria and procedures to award grants in each of the six categories. Burris described this year's goal as "the pilot to get the program off the ground and make it successful."
Once again, the fire organizations have shown a determination to work together to achieve a common goal. Each one has temporarily set aside a project it would like to have included in this year's program. But everyone understands how important it is for the Title XVII money to reach the local departments and start producing success stories that will convince Congress to increase next year's funding and keep the program going.
Fire departments interested in applying for grants will be able to get more information and guidelines from the USFA website at www.usfa.fema.gov or by telephoning the grants office at 301-447-1600.
President George W. Bush has appointed Joe Allbaugh to succeed James Lee Witt as the FEMA director. Not much is known about Allbaugh or his experience, but he has a reputation for being a man who produces results. He was Bush's campaign manager, served as chief of staff in the Texas governor's office and was part of the so-called "iron triangle" that made up Bush's inner circle of close advisers.
Witt deserves credit for taking charge of a battered and beaten agency and turning it around in his eight years as director. He got off to a rocky start with the fire-rescue service, but eventually came to realize the critical role that firefighters play in every type of disaster. Witt gave the USFA a voice at FEMA's top level and became a champion for the fire programs. He tackled the tough problems and sought the advice of fire leaders he came to respect - just as they learned to respect him. We're going to miss James Lee Witt.
Hopefully, Allbaugh will pick up where Witt leaves off. The Bush administration is reported to be mainly concerned about national security and the threat of domestic terrorism. That's OK, as long as they understand that more people die in natural disasters than in terrorist attacks and that fires kill more people than natural disasters. And, whatever the emergency may be, firefighters are the first responders who are responsible for saving lives and property while there's still time to save them.
Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a retired 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.