What is billed as a helping hand from the federal government to career fire departments across the nation has become for some of those departments, a hand out of reach, at least this year.
The SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) Grant was created to provide funding directly to fire departments and volunteer firefighter interest organizations in order to help them increase the number of trained, "front-line" firefighters available in their communities.
News stories are popping up across the country discussing how jurisdictions that have applied for and have been awarded SAFER grants, are viewing them now in light of the current economic conditions, and turning them back in.
So far in disbursing the FY2008 funding, 20 grants winners have determined they no longer want the grant, according to USFA Program Director for AFG Brian Cowan.
In FY2008, the grant comes as assistance, not full funding of a position. Program guidance states the grant will cover salary and benefits for newly hired firefighters as follows:
- Year One: 90 percent of the actual costs or $39,015
- Year Two: 80 percent of the actual costs or $34,675
- Year Three: 50 percent of the actual costs or $21,670
- Year Four: 30 percent of the actual costs or $13,020
- Year Five: No Federal share - all costs funded by grantee
FY2008 is the fourth year of the program and over those four years, economic conditions in the country have changed; and specifically for local governments which are seeing tax revenues dry up, and governmental commitments increase. As the years pass one through five and funding commitments under the grant increase, today's budgets may not be funded to meet those commitments.
The stimulus package passed by Congress last week carried a provision that eliminated the local department match for the first four years for grants awarded in FY2009 and FY2010. The SAFER grant requires keeping the firefighter on staff for five years. The federal cap on funds per year remains the same and also does not cover any of the salary and benefits in that fifth year so departments will have to decide if they can afford that fifth of year cost out of their own pockets.
In 2009, $210 million has been appropriated for SAFER with10 percent going to Recruitment and Retention. In Fiscal Year 2008, Congress appropriated a total of $190 million.
Also in the stimulus package, along with the change in funding for the SAFER grant program comes a new program funding firehouse construction; $210 million with no grant exceeding $15 million. Cowan believes it will follow the AFG template where competitive, electronic applications face peer review. There does not appear to be any department cost sharing, but application criteria is yet to be written, he said.
The number of rejected SAFER Grants must be put into perspective. Nearly 1000 grants have been given over the last four years and only somewhere around 40 have been declined; 20 so far in 2008, 13 in 2007 and a handful the previous two year. Never-the-less, the number annually is rising.
"Everybody knows the economic times we are in are going to get tougher. What I hear is that the state and local governments are in for a tough time. People are looking for ways to tighten their belts. Sometimes they look to first responders for that," said Cowan.
He feels confident that governments know what they are getting into. "The applicant does know there is a significant contribution needed somewhere around 60 to 70 percent over the four years of federal payout. It is a grant that helps out, expedites the process that was a department's plan to hire or expand staff. This makes it happen sooner. People realize how serious this is but sometimes they are unable to sustain it," he said.
"I don't expect the issue to get smaller. We will keep an eye on it. We want to make sure management here knows what is going on," Cowan said.