Legislative Shell Game Being Played with FIRE Act Grants

Aug. 1, 2004
It looks as if the federal FIRE Act grant program will survive for the next few years and be funded at somewhere between $500 million and $900 million annually. Though its final form is not certain at this time, Congress seems determined to keep it as a separate and distinct program – for fire departments only – that covers all hazards, not just response to terrorism. But there are some major differences between the House and Senate versions that have to be resolved in conference committees.

The FIRE Act’s authorization runs out in October and the Senate has passed a reauthorization bill that would extend it to 2010. The House bill, which is still being worked on, only goes as far as 2007. What’s unusual this year is that the authorization and appropriation hearings are going on simultaneously in various committees. In previous years, there was a gap of weeks or months between the two parts of the process and, as we have learned from bitter experience, there is a vast difference between “authorization” – which is what you’d like to get – and “appropriation” – which is the money you actually get.

For example, the Senate has authorized $900 million for FIRE Act grants in the next fiscal year, $950 million in 2006 and $1 billion per year from 2007 to 2010. Sounds great, but when it comes to the actual appropriation for next year, the Senate provides only $700 million and the House version calls for $600 million. Both are less than the $750 million the program had this year, but more than the $500 million the Bush administration proposed in its 2005 budget.

Confusing? You bet, but that’s the way this legislative shell game is played and it becomes even more complicated when you get down to other details. For example, the administration wants the FIRE Act grants limited to buying apparatus, equipment, personal protective gear and training, with the emphasis on response to terrorism. But Congress has put in language allowing the grants to be used for “all hazards” – which includes fire prevention, arson detection, emergency medical services, rapid intervention teams, hazmat, improving fire stations, etc. The FIRE Act is intended to help fire departments get funding that is not available at the local level for projects that meet their basic needs.

The ceilings on grants are being raised and the amount of matching money required is being lowered in the new authorizations. Instead of a $750,000 cap, the Senate raises the maximum grants to $1 million for cities under 500,000 population and $1.5 million for the larger cities. The House version would allow grants as high as $2 million or $3 million, depending on the size of the city. The matching money a local department has to put up would be reduced from 30% to 20% for the larger cities and 10% for those under 50,000 in population.

Another difference between the two chambers is that the House bill would not allow grants to any department that prohibits its career firefighters from serving as volunteers while off duty. The Senate version does not include that provision and there does not seem to be much sentiment in the Senate to add it. This could become a major issue when both bills reach the conference committee.

The House wants to take control of the FIRE Act grants away from the Office of Domestic Preparedness (ODP) and give it back to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), which is where it belongs and where the fire service wants it to be. The Senate bill would leave that decision up to the Secretary of Homeland Security, which means it will stay with ODP because that’s where the Bush administration and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) want it to be.

However, there will be some kind of language in the final bill that gives USFA a prominent role in administering the program and the grants will continue to go directly to local fire departments. These are crucial points. More than $1.7 billion in FIRE Act funds have been awarded in the past four years and the program is successful because it has been managed fairly and efficiently by USFA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In contrast, Homeland Security’s anti-terrorism aid to first responders has been a bureaucratic nightmare as it slowly trickles down from Washington to state governments, where it’s divided between fire, police and emergency medical services before being distributed to the local level.

There are still powerful forces in Congress and the administration that don’t like the FIRE Act and would kill it if they could. Fortunately, the fire service organizations have people on Capitol Hill who are skilled lobbyists and know how to play the game. They’ve had strong bipartisan support from the Congressional Fire Services Caucus, whose leaders appealed to the President to restore full funding for the program and move it back to USFA. When that failed, they added more money on their own and it’s safe to say there would be no FIRE Act grants if it weren’t for the clout that comes from 320 members of the fire caucus.

The FIRE Act may be small potatoes when compared with the $4 billion DHS will have available for first responders in fiscal 2005 or the billions of dollars in federal aid the police receive every year. And, it may not be everything the fire service wants it to be, but it’s a lot better than nothing – which is what firefighters had four years ago.

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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