Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano cited input from firefighters as a major reason that the President's budget request proposes reducing funding for the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program from $565 million to $170 million. The President is also asking Congress to increase funding for the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant program from $210 million to $420 million.
In budget hearings before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee and the House Homeland Security Committee on May 12 and 13, Napolitano said that feedback she has received from fire departments and local governments indicates that staffing is a more pressing concern than equipment and training.
"Staffing, equipment, and training are all critical needs for the fire service," said National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) Chairman Philip C. Stittleburg. "This budget request unfortunately doesn't do enough to address any of these needs, proposing to fund AFG and SAFER at less than thirty percent of their collective authorized level. The dramatic cut to AFG - the lowest level proposed by a President since 2003 - is particularly disturbing considering the need for equipment and training that has been clearly demonstrated through past applications for funding."
More than 21,000 fire departments applied for approximately $3.2 billion in AFG funding last year, compared with just over 1,300 departments that applied for less than $600 million through SAFER. AFG provides funding to fire departments to purchase equipment, training, and apparatus. Five percent of AFG funds are set aside to support fire prevention and safety programs. SAFER funds primarily go towards hiring career firefighters, with ten percent set-aside for recruitment and retention of volunteers.
In response to questions at the budget hearings, Napolitano cited the $210 million for fire station construction and remodeling that was included in FY 2009 economic stimulus legislation as another reason for the proposed decrease in AFG funding for FY 2010. At the NVFC spring meeting in April, the Board of Directors adopted a resolution opposing diverting funding from AFG to pay for fire station construction.
"The NVFC will continue to work with Congress and the administration to ensure that programs that provide critical assistance to the volunteer fire service receive adequate support," said Stittleburg.
On May 15, the NVFC sent a letter to Secretary Napolitano expressing concern with the President's budget request and asking for a meeting to discuss the matter further.