Grant Program Facing Last-Minute Changes?

What Might Happen with the Firefighter Grants Program?

  • The application process for the Assistance to Firefighters Grants program was supposed to open Monday, but was delayed by 'technical' difficulties over the weekend to give more time for FEMA officials to prepare for the larger amount ($750 million) available, officials said.
  • Officials are debating the structure of the 'Final Rule' which will outline exactly what this year's program will entail. The release of this document makes the program (and money) formal, and will determine how the money is distributed.
  • According to sources, that Final Rule could include changes to this year's program, directing a specific amount of money to Terrorism/Weapons of Mass Destruction and Homeland Defense programs for First Responders. The amount of this change is not known and is part of the current discussion within the Administration.
  • The Final Rule could be coming in a matter of a day or so, or as late as sometime next week, according to sources.
  • The grant limit for the Terrorism/WMD category could also be substantially higher than the regular Assistance to Firefighters grants.
  • Nothing is final. Other than the delay, and some posturing by several sides, the program for 2003 could likely go off exactly as USFA and FEMA officials originally planned, or there could minor to substantial changes that reduce the amount of funding for 'basic firefighting and first responder' needs programs.

FEMA was to begin accepting applications for Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program (FIRE Act) Monday, but abruptly announced a delay due to "unanticipated technicalities".

This brought on intense speculation not the least of which supported the idea the Bush Administration was attempting to repurpose the money to some of their priority programs.

President Bush has been under pressure to start providing money to the states and cities that are supposed to be moving their jurisdictions toward terrorism preparedness. In a recent letter sent to the President from Democratic leaders Tom Daschle in the Senate and Nancy Pelosi in the House, the two lambasted the President saying, "It is indefensible that you have not made funding for homeland security your top priority."

Faced with such pressure, the Bush Administration might be looking to the $750 million in this years FIRE Act program as providing some relief, sources said.

The language of the authorizing legislation allows under the use of funds, "(B) To train firefighting personnel in firefighting, emergency response (including response to a terrorism incident or use of a weapon of mass destruction) ... and, (H) To acquire additional firefighting equipment, including equipment for communications, monitoring, and response to terrorism incident or use of a weapon of mass destruction."

This is possibly the ticket the Bush Administration is looking for to get them on board passing out money where the promised. In a press release on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Web site that discusses funding, it states "The First Responder Initiative in 2003 is intended to help state and local governments assess their needs and apply for resources directly related to responding to terrorist incidents.

While the bill passed by the Congress does not fully support the kind of broad, needs-based grant program requested by the President, the Department has made it a top priority to quickly get the money to states and localities. Part of this funding includes $745 million to help fund local first responders through the Firefighters Grant Program.

In remarks by DHS Secretary Tom Ridge to the National Association of Counties Monday, he said, "Now, in the end, some of these dollars [terrorism-related money] were deflected to other priorities. To the extent that we can use the flexibility that Congress gave us around those programs to shift some of them back specifically to counterterrorism spending, we're going to do that.

In the same speech, however, Ridge singles out the funds for firefighters. "We will [provide] $750 million for the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program, which is an historic increase, the largest in American history," Ridge said.

Essential to starting the program is the publishing of the "Final Rule" in the Federal Register. Almost like "writing in stone", the "Final Rule" lays out the guidelines to followed by all involved with an authorized and appropriated program. It lays out the exact amounts of money in this case, who should get it and how.

Since the "Final Rule" has not yet been published, the dollars and guidelines are not yet written in stone and the question arises, is someone manipulating the FY2003, $750 million program while fire departments wait for the green light?

That possibility exists now with the movement of FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security and as it