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The good news is that the President's budget for the 2003 fiscal year calls for $3.5 billion to be spent on support of first responders as part of the Homeland Security defense. Most of the money will go to local fire, police and emergency medical services to provide training and equipment to meet the threat of terrorism. It confirms the Bush administration's recognition of the crucial role firefighters play in every type of disaster and marks a higher level of federal spending for the fire-rescue service.
The bad news is that there are flaws in how the funds are going to be distributed. Another major concern is that they cannot be spent on one of the most serious problems facing the nation's under-staffed fire departments: the desperate need to hire more firefighters. It also may signal an end to the FIRE Act grant program and it is unclear as to how much money will actually reach local fire departments after 25% is taken off the top by state governments.
Under the proposal, no funds will go directly from Washington to the local level. Instead, the money will be allocated to the states on a per capita basis by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). After keeping the state's share, governors will control distribution of the remaining 75% to local jurisdictions. Fire departments seeking federal aid will have to submit plans on how they intend to use the money to both FEMA and their state governments. Once a plan has been approved, states will have 30 days to deliver the money to a local agency.
President Bush and Tom Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland Security, are both former governors and it's logical that they would see the states as the best way to administer the program. But many fire chiefs do not have much faith in state government. Their lack of confidence is based on experience in dealing with state officials on a wide range of issues - including money. While grateful for the Bush administration's good intentions, they are concerned that putting the money and the power in the hands of governors will create a needless bureaucratic obstacle that could impede the program. There also is concern that state-local politics could come into play in dispensing the funds to cities, towns and counties.
The fire-rescue service wants the money to go directly from FEMA to the local level with no detours and no middlemen involved. Fire officials have a new sense of confidence in FEMA under the leadership of Director Joe Allbaugh. Everyone was impressed by the fair and open way that FEMA and the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) handled the first year of the FIRE Act grants. (The fire-rescue service owes a big "thank you" to Ken Burris, the USFA's former chief operating officer, who made it happen and who now is a FEMA regional director.)
Along with worries over how the homeland defense program will be administered, fire leaders were caught by surprise when it was learned that the President's $2.13 trillion budget does not include the $900 million that Congress authorized for the 2003 FIRE Act grants. Apparently, the administration believes that there is no need for the grant program because of the $3.5 billion proposed for first responders under homeland security.
However, local fire departments will get only a share of that money, which is why the fire-rescue service wants the FIRE Act to be continued. Officers of the major fire organizations presented a united front on this issue when they testified before a Senate subcommittee on appropriations. Heads of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) called for funding the 2003 grants at the full $900 million. And, they endorsed the IAFF's proposal that half of the money be earmarked for recruiting and hiring more firefighters.