Senate Passes SAFER Act in Defense Bill

As expected, the Senate gave final approval November 12 to a $401.3 billion Fiscal Year 2004 National Defense Authorization Bill. The bill, which passed the House of Representatives last week, has as an amendment the SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Resources) Act.

The bill authorizing 2004 defense programs now go to President Bush for his signature. Democrats joined Republicans in the 95-3 vote.

The SAFER Act authorizes The Administrator of the U.S. Fire Administration to award $7.6 billion over seven years in annual grants for the purpose of hiring, recruiting and retaining career and volunteer firefighters to help communities meet industry minimum standards and attain 24-hour staffing to provide adequate protection from fire and fire-related hazards, including acts of terrorism.

Authorization bills such as this one do not provide the money to fund the legislation. Rather the wording dictates the intents of the legislation and leaves the funding to appropriations bills. Appropriation bills are further legislation to be enacted and may or may not allow spending to the levels authorized. Sometimes there is no funding appropriated.

This program will not be eligible to receive funding until Fiscal Year 2005. Spending for FY2004 began October 1.

The SAFER Act of 2003 amends the Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974 to require the establishment of an office within the United States Fire Administration to administer a grant program to make direct four-year grants to State career, volunteer, and combination fire departments for staff increases.

Ten percent of the total amount appropriated for SAFER are reserved for Recruitment and Retention Grants to enhance the number of volunteer firefighters and at least ten percent of the remaining funds are guaranteed for hiring firefighters at volunteer and majority volunteer departments. Any unused amounts are transferred to the Recruitment and Retention Grants.

Grants will be awarded directly to career, volunteer and combination fire departments on the basis of need, modeled after the highly successful Assistance to Firefighters (FIRE Act) Grant Program.

No fire department that accepts funds under this Act may penalize or discriminate against firefighters who chose to volunteer in other jurisdictions during off-duty hours.

SAFER Hiring Grants will last for a period of four years and will be increasingly matched by local dollars to wean local governments from being dependent upon the federal government (10, 20, 50 and 70 percent in years one through four).

Departments must commit to retaining newly acquired firefighters for one year past the termination of the grant. Employment applications must also specify long-term plans for retaining newly attained firefighters.

The total four-year grant for hiring a firefighter may not exceed $100,000; adjusted annually. Authority for the grant program sunsets after 10 years from the date of enactment. SAFER Hiring Grant funds must not be used to supplant existing federal, State or local resources.