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.
Last month, the city of Great Falls, Mont. had to decide if they would accept a grant of $1.73 that was awarded on Jan. 16 to help fund the hiring of 16 new firefighters.
The city commissioners voted unanimously, 5-0 on Jan. 28 to approve using it and funding the rest of the balance with city funds.
The department currently has a total of 64 uniformed employees, serving a population of approximately 55,000.
The added manpower would help the department move closer to meeting NFPA 1710, the standard setting minimum requirements relating to the organization and deployment of firefighters, according to Assistant Chief of Operations Steve Hester. The main issue that made the city rethink accepting the grant, Hester said, was the monetary obligation required.
"The hard match for the AFG is known, but this is a little different. Because it covers wages but doesn't include benefits, our fiscal folks were very concerned about the future impact on the general budget."
He said that for the first couple of years the city will be OK, but in order for it to secure the funds needed in the future for the grant, it would most likely take a public safety mill levy that would need to be voted on by the public.
Hester said he'd put it to a community vote in November if it was up to him. That way the department could introduce the idea to the public early on and have other chances to gain its vote if needed.
In 2005 in the fifth round of first SAFER grants, Miami Fire Rescue was awarded $2.6 Million to hire 26 firefighters. The department began to fill those positions in March of 2006 and is currently in the third year of the grant.
The grant covers $100,000 for each firefighter over the first four years of the grant, with the department picking up the tab after that.
"We're committed to it for the duration," Capt. Robert Turner, the department's grant manager said. "We've been able to do it so far because we've budgeted."
"It's working out well," he said. "Those young men are still here, there are progressing in their careers."
Since receiving the grant in 2005, Miami Fire Rescue has applied for two other SAFER grants. In 2006 its request was denied. Currently, the department is waiting for a reply on a requested grant for 12 firefighters filed in 2008.
Turner said there is a lot for departments to consider when applying for SAFER grants.
"I would work it backwards," he said. "Look at how much it will cost you and see if it is doable. If you can't afford your share, they aren't going to give you their share and you'll end up having to return the funds."
Recruitment and Retention Grants Working Well
Departments requesting money for the recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters must adhere to somewhat less stringent guidelines than departments looking for hiring funds. There is no funding match required.
Walls Volunteer Fire Department in Mississippi says they will use the money to provide small incentives for the volunteers they have, and reach out into the community to help increase their numbers.
The department received notice last December that they were awarded $115,000. Some of those funds will go towards incentives for volunteers, the rest will go to community outreach.
Fire Inspector David Krzyzkowski said that he was the one who first learned about the SAFER funds, and saw the opportunity to step up recruitment efforts, which had before relied on simple word-of-mouth.
"I got to reading the grant and said, wait a minute, we can use this for volunteers and also use it to help us recruit," he said. "The chief said if it's not going to cost anything to do it, go ahead and do it."
Krzyzkowski said his department is currently looking into getting a recruitment DVD produced, a process that is a lot more expensive than they originally thought.
He said they would likely put the video on the department's website, and have it available at the block parties the department began holding throughout the community last year.
"We got a good response last year, but see that we need to put forth more efforts. For every volunteer we get, we lose two or three."
The members of Ohio's Erie County Firefighter's Association received notice that they would be receiving $44,000 in SAFER funds in September of 2006. Now in their third year, they have been using the money to keep local firefighters educated and advancing up the company ladder.
"We've been getting our guys into higher level areas, not just doing training that's hands-on, so they can start getting their degrees," says Rudy Ruiz of the Sandusky Fire Department.
He said that every year, for four years, one firefighter from each of his community's 11 combination or volunteer fire departments is awarded $1,000 towards tuition.
He said participants can use the money on any classes directly related to the business of firefighting -- such as fire science or EMS. Or they can take classes that would be helpful to them as they more up the ranks, such as business administration or accounting.
He said local universities have been very accepting of the program.
"We've had universities come to us, which was nice," he said. That way, if a firefighter couldn't make it to the school due to scheduling conflicts, school came to them. They came to local departments and set up classes there.
Ruiz said overall, he is happy with the program. He said they have had 20 applicants, and their original goal was 35.
"It's been pretty successful," he said.