It's Time for Congress to Rescue Fire Service Grant Programs

April 1, 2006

Once again, Congress will have to be the legislative version of a rapid intervention team if the FIRE Act and SAFER programs are to have adequate funding for the next fiscal year. As usual, there is a huge gap between the amount of money the fire service expected and the amount proposed in President Bush’s 2007 budget. But this year’s rescue effort will be more difficult because it’s an election year; Congress already is embroiled in partisan turmoil and eager to fight on almost every issue, large or small.

The budget process has become a familiar, five-act play that is staged every year and follows a script like this: Act 1 – Congress authorizes all or most of the money the fire service wants for these programs, which causes everyone to feel good; Act 2 – The President presents a budget that proposes much lower spending or tries to kill a program by “zero budgeting,†which means no money at all; Act 3 – The fire organizations lobby their friends in Congress to restore the budget cuts; Act 4 – The House and Senate come up with their own appropriation bills that have to be reconciled in conference committees; and Act 5 – A compromise is reached and the final version provides a little more money than the President wanted to spend, but far less than Congress authorized or the fire service hoped for.

The Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program (known as the “FIRE Actâ€) was originally authorized at a billion dollars a year, but has never come closer than the $750 million appropriated in 2004. It gives direct grants to fire departments to help meet basic needs that local governments are unable or unwilling to provide. It has been a highly successful program, with the money being spent on worthwhile projects. Amazingly, administrative costs have been kept low as 20,000 fire departments apply for grants each year. However, despite its success, the funding has been going downhill every year, with $545 million in 2006 and only $293 million proposed by the White House in next year’s budget – a cut of almost 50%!

Many people do not understand that the FIRE Act is separate from much larger Department of Homeland Security grant programs that specifically aim at helping first responders prepare for acts of terrorism in high-risk target areas. There has been unfair criticism that some departments have used FIRE Act funds for physical fitness equipment. Each year, about 60% of firefighter line-of-duty deaths are caused by heart attacks and strokes, which is why the FIRE Act made health and safety one of its major goals. The grants have been used for a wide range of fire prevention and firefighting projects; providing exercise equipment for a firehouse fitness room is a legitimate grant project. Unfortunately, stupid, ill-informed criticism makes it tougher to restore funding to the FIRE Act, but it is well worth the effort.

The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) program also was authorized at a billion dollars a year to help understaffed fire departments hire 75,000 career firefighters over a period of seven years. It also provides funds to help smaller departments recruit and retain their volunteers. At the start, it was hailed as a major breakthrough that put the fire service on the same level as the police, who receive billions in federal aid every year to hire more cops. What a load of bunk that turned out to be. This year, SAFER was funded at a measly $110 million and the Bush administration proposes z-e-r-o for 2007. That, in effect, will kill the program, unless Congress comes up with the money to keep it alive.

Based on past experience, it would seem likely that Congress will save these and other programs by appropriating more money after the House, Senate and White House go through the ritual goat dance that is required to pass a budget. But this year it could be much tougher. Along with the normal Democrat vs. Republican squabbles, there’s the spectacle of Republicans fighting each other and publicly disagreeing with their President, whose poll ratings are at an all-time low. There is chaos on Capitol Hill, which makes it more difficult to get things done, especially when issues are judged by their impact on November’s midterm election.

All of the House and one-third of the Senate seats are up for election and now is the time for firefighters and their supporters to let them know that they want the FIRE Act funds to be restored and SAFER to be saved. Write and call their offices, send e-mails and faxes, and try to talk to them when they come home to campaign during their long spring and summer breaks. Don’t be fooled when they try to tell you how much they authorized for fire programs. What counts is how much they appropriated and only dummies don’t know the difference. Let them know that firefighters are not dummies.

Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

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